Good Husbands and Obedient Wives


“Obey your husband willingly, trust in his guidance, and never show a pained or resentful face. Put up with your husband’s faults, no matter how bad they are, always remembering that the body, even when ill or rotting, still clings to its head, however ugly or confused this may be.”

~ Urbana to Felisa

Diva recognized the voice on the phone right away, though she would have been happy if she hadn’t heard it again in her lifetime. It was the only voice she knew whose Ilonggo inflection sounded like it was made of wind chimes pitched too high. “Divina, is that you?”

She had never cared for that name either. “Divina”—it had been her school name, and it only pointed mockingly at her clunkiness. “Diva” was her first symbolic break from the Bacolod childhood that she had been eager to turn her back on. After high school, she had gone to a university in Manila and blurted out this nickname on her first day in the freshman ladies’ dorm, when a roommate had asked her name. “Nice name,” the roommate said indifferently as she unpacked her suitcase. “Easy to remember.”

Now, decades later, Diva was suddenly Divina all over again.

The voice at the other end of the phone belonged to Lita Montinola, a high school classmate. Rene had died three years ago, she said, and she was just coming out of mourning. Would Diva like to come over and keep her company? She had a house full of empty rooms and Diva could pick any room she liked—even the one farthest from Lita’s own if Diva was still anti-social. Mwahahahaha!

It was the same hearty laugh of 35 years ago that, if it came from another woman, would have been called coarse. But only Lita could make such a laugh part of her guileless charm. It burst out of her to everyone within hearing range into her personal space. Even the way she asked her questions was not out of any uncertainty but was simply her way of gauging how much the world would need to bend over to accommodate her. And if it refused, well, she’d shrug her shoulders and go on to something or someone else more pliable.

Lita’s invitation was a surprise to Diva. They had never really been friends in school. In fact, Diva couldn’t remember if they’d exchanged more than ten words with one another then. There had been—she suddenly remembered—the one time twelve years before, when Lita and Rene had treated her to a buffet lunch in Bacolod’s most popular restaurant, but that had happened purely by accident. And even then, it was Lita who’d done most of the talking. Maybe Lita had remembered that day and thought that Diva had seemed to enjoy their company.

So it was desperation that must have goaded Lita into offering her hospitality. After the solicitous attention the other classmates had poured on her at her husband’s wake and funeral, life had to go on for those that death had as yet no claim, so she was left to deal with her bereavement her own way.

Diva had gotten trapped into that lunch with Lita and Rene twelve years ago, when she had slipped into Bacolod for a weekend seminar on real estate. She saw Rene first as he came out of the bank, his head bowed, frowning down at a sheaf of papers in his hand. She was about to brush past him, pretending not to know him, when he suddenly stopped in his tracks and they collided.

“Hi, Rene,” she said.

She didn’t know where that had come from. She had meant to say, “Sorry” and then gone on her way. But she’d already said his name and couldn’t now pretend she’d mistaken him for someone else. She watched as waves of various expressions washed over his face. Puzzlement as he tried to place where they’d met before, apology at his failure to recollect it, the slow recognition of her name as she introduced herself, and finally astonishment at his inability to match the name with her face. They stood on the sidewalk and made desultory conversation until she realized they were both genuinely interested in what each had been doing all these years.

“Look, Lita will be happy to see you again. I’m meeting her for lunch at Bob’s. Come with me,” he finally said. He was already pressing buttons on his cellphone to tell Lita that Diva was with him.

Rene had warned her that Lita had filled out somewhat, but he hadn’t prepared her for the giant beach ball that came bounding across the restaurant and enveloped her in a pair of elephantine arms. It felt like being cocooned in a padded cell.

Lita brushed aside Diva’s awkward attempt to hide her shock at Lita’s prodigious size. “Of course you didn’t recognize me! I’m so fat. This is what happiness does to people. Mwahaha!”

Lunch at Bob’s Restaurant was an eat-all-you-can mongolian barbecue. People were already milling around the buffet table, choosing which vegetable dishes they wanted to go with the tenderloin strips. But Lita was heaping nothing but red meat on her plate as she instructed Diva, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Don’t bother with the veggies. This way it’s an eat-all-you-can steak dinner for half the price.”

“But isn’t that sort of . . . bad faith?” Diva whispered. “I mean, doesn’t the management mind? After all, this buffet price is a steal; maybe we should just return their goodwill.”

Hay, Divina.” Lita sighed and shook her head. “You may have been the class genius but you were never street-smart. Why, do you think these restaurant owners get rich on goodwill? We don’t owe them anything.” She still didn’t bother to keep her voice down. A few of the other customers were already beginning to follow her lead.

Rene and Lita were smiling at each other conspiratorially, but Diva saw that Rene’s plate held equal portions of meat and greens. She herself decided to leave out the meat and eat a purely vegetarian lunch, in some vague attempt to even out what Lita was doing.

Lita was laughing as they sat down at their table. “I can outsmart the best of them, can’t I, Rene?”

“I keep telling you,” Rene said, caressing Lita’s cheek with the back of his hand, “you can be very, very smart when you want to be.”

This was how it would feel, Diva thought, if she stumbled into their bedroom and witnessed something that not even husband and wife should be able to look each other in the eye about the next morning.

“Well, Divina,” Rene said, turning to her as if suddenly remembering that they had company, “are you here to solve our problems?”

Problems? Anyone who’d been married for almost twenty years certainly had their problems but what business was it of hers? Rene waved around at the people at other tables, from where they could hear snatches of conversation about harvesting and milling and sugar prices. Somebody was talking vehemently about pole vaulting.

“Pole vaulting.” It seemed that throughout her life in Bacolod, Diva had heard this phrase uttered always in vehement tones. Hacenderos, driven by desperation during the sugar crisis, used their bank loans to vault from one expense account to another. A long time ago, Diva’s mother had hurled it accusingly at her father when he came home from his numerous nocturnal excursions. It was the measure by which claims, in Negros, shrank.

Diva had once told her husband Ed about how meanings had accrued to the phrase, ranging from hacienda to domestic discourse, and he had replied, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” She couldn’t tell if he understood what she had meant.

But Rene knew exactly what Diva’s raised eyebrows meant when he laughed and said, “Me, pole vaulting? I haven’t gone that way yet. At least, I have other resources.”

Ay, ambot ah!” Lita exclaimed as she shook out Rene’s napkin and laid it on his lap. “You two stop being so serious. You know how that song goes, ‘Don’t worry; be happy.’ That’s my philosophy in life. So let’s just talk about happier things. Do you know who just bought her mother a townhouse?” And without waiting for either of them to reply, she said dramatically, “Lenny.” Her salary, Lita went on, pointing her steak knife at Diva for emphasis, could buy her a brand new Toyota car every month. Yes, Diva agreed, they’d always known Lenny would be the class achiever.

“But you, Divina,” Lita went on, “when Rene told me just now that you were in real estate, I was quite surprised. Why, I always thought with your brains, you’d take up something like chemistry and become the president of an oil company like Shell or Petron.”

“Well,” Rene said, “I, for one, always knew Divina’d be very good at getting people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.”

He must have been just covering up for Lita’s tactlessness, for that was surely what he thought it was. What Diva had always seen since their schooldays as Lita’s streaks of meanness were to men simply her winsome airheadedness. She picked up a cube of tofu with her chopstick and said, “You know how it is for people who don’t finish college. It’s either insurance or real estate. I’ve done both.”

But Lita’s virtue was that she was so involved in her own thoughts that she often failed to recognize what might have been a juicy bit of gossip. Her mind had already wandered off to other classmates. Remember Tess? She had married so well! She had joined the Bayanihan while still in college and had bagged a European ambassador on a tour. And they were still married! She was now living in a castle in Vienna. Imagine that! What a long way it was from living in a rented old house with eight younger sisters and brothers, and her father just an accountant. Hay, Tess was so very, very blessed.

“But you’re very blessed yourself,” Diva said. “You have three beautiful children, a loving husband, and a very comfortable life. What more could you want?” And Lita herself had risen from the same middle-class origins. By her own standards, that would have been the greatest blessing of all.

“You’re right,” Lita sighed. Then she turned to Rene. “I do have only one regret. I know I’ve tried everything in my power to be the best wife to you, Rene. But I’m so fat gid. I wish I could lose all this weight.”

Rene laughed and said nothing.

Lita turned back to Diva. “Everyone else has been trying to get me to stop eating. But not Rene. He lets me eat as much as I want, because he knows how much I love to eat.”

Rene said, “Well, after all, she feeds me so well, I think she should eat whatever she wants to. You should try her mango cream pie, Diva. Nothing like it in the world!”

“The secret is in the butter. It’s got to be Crisco. Never settle for anything less, not even Anchor. It’s worth the expense, believe me,” Lita said emphatically.

Diva’s fellow activists during her student days had conducted their group discussions with the same degree of conviction. She looked from one to the other. It seemed to her that Rene’s smile was trembling at the corners, as if it was too much weight for his facial muscles to bear.

“You’re so lucky to have such an indulgent husband,” she said and arranged her face so that it would look properly envious.

“That’s why I worship him gid ya bala. He’s so kind and protective. He never burdens me with worries about the hacienda and he never criticizes me. He loves me as I am. I’m very blessed. God is so good to me. Mwahaha!”

You had to believe in that raucous laugh, Diva thought. No laugh so raucous could be less than sincere. Or else you would have to lose your faith in the inherent goodness of humanity. “Redeeming grace” the Sisters had called it. Everyone had their “redeeming grace.”

The waiters were clearing away the buffet table and one of them was putting up the sign “Closed” on the table. They had run out of meat thirty minutes earlier than usual.

The evening of Lita’s call, Diva told Ed over dinner about Lita’s invitation to stay the weekend with her in Bacolod. She was halfway through the story of her chance encounter with Rene and Lita twelve years ago when she noticed he wasn’t really following. Even the refrigerator was staring at her blankly. The beef stew had already fallen asleep.

Ed moved from the dining table to the TV set and watched CNN as he said, “Go ahead and keep her company.”

“But I’m surprised she thought of me at all. We were in two entirely different worlds back then and I can’t imagine what we’d have to say to each other now.”

“People change. Some for the better, some for the worse. Others just change. That’s life.”

She was already sorry she’d said anything. It was remarks like this that gave her a clear idea what Mrs. Aesop’s life must have been like. “Oh yes,” she said dryly, randomly picking from his personal collection of aphorisms, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

He nodded and took a swig at his beer as he switched to the Discovery channel. A female simian chattered around her mate that was lying on the jungle floor and studying islets of sky through the canopy of vines and leaves. The world was full of lonely creatures. The problem was that they each chose to be lonely with someone else.

Ed had been her political officer—P.O. they called it back then—during the student revolution in the ‘60s. Now, after 33 years of marriage, his end of their conversations still sounded like he was pulling quotes out of a book. At least, they were no longer confined to Mao’s, Marx’s, nor Lenin’s, Diva thanked god for that.

She had married Ed at a time when his common sense seemed exotic among people whose every conversation was an argument over some Monumental Issue. He was an ardent lover and came home every night to her, although sometimes he came home tipsy but not drunk enough to be disgusting. Diva wasn’t sure if the solidity of their marriage was built on total trust or simply the absence of supervision. As far as Diva knew, he was faithful to her, which was incredible, considering the macho culture that Philippine society encouraged. And so she did not boast about it to friends, who at some point or another suffered from a husband’s infidelity. They would merely have raised their eyebrows and dismissed her for her gullibility.

Ed and Diva’s togetherness that her friends envied was simply a prolonged state of polite suppression regularly punctuated by explosions of mutual lust. Diva had long ago accepted that this was the natural order of things. Surely marital fidelity was all part of the cosmic order, for the cosmos was nothing more than the black hole with peripheral meteor showers.

Within the first ten years of their marriage, Diva had discovered the secret to a happy marriage by the process of elimination. She had raided her mother’s armory for the weapons that she had then hurled at Ed: logical argument, recrimination, the sulks, emotional blackmail, silence, and withdrawal. One night, in the middle of another of her somnambulist nights, she had realized, in one epiphanic flash, that her marriage was turning out no better than her mother’s—all exhausting, aching effort, like blowing into a rubber balloon that, once let go, went out of control, flying round and round, whistling derisively. Then she scoured women’s magazines, self-help books, dog training manuals, reading them upside down for the answers to the quiz at the end of each article and chapter. Good communication, breakfast in bed on Sundays, anniversary celebrations—she had claimed all these as the wife’s right until it finally dawned on her that all these formulas were merely part of the Great Hoax that made Marriage Encounters brisk business. Finally, the only thing left was SEX. Sex sex sex sex sex sex sex. It was the fulcrum to the ritual checks and balances that kept their marriage plodding on. Afterwards, Ed would gather her in his arms and murmur, “I love you.” Or, for variation, “my voluptuous sweetheart.” He would be more than half asleep; his eyes would be closed, a hand wandering indifferently over her surfaces. She might have been any woman.

The morning after Lita’s call, Diva’s boss called her into his office and said, “Pack a bag. I’ve got a good one for you. There’s a resort that’s up for grabs in Bacolod and we’ve a client here who’s interested in adding it to his resort-hotel chain.”

Bingo! Diva thought. A working vacation. She’d do her good deed by Lita and earn her commission in the same week. That night, as she packed her bag, she told Ed jokingly that she was going back to her hometown to recapture the innocence of her youth. Of course the irony escaped him entirely, and he agreed with her, himself adding sagely, “The state of grace, that’s where we all start from.”

In Bacolod, as she emerged from the airport, Diva immediately recognized Lita, whose 51-year-old figure was as slim and firm as it had been when they were still wearing the convent school uniform of baggy blue jumper and white blouse. She had sloughed off a hundred pounds since twelve years ago and bore no trace of whatever punishment her body must have taken as it seesawed on the weighing scale. Not an inch that skin sagged anywhere; there weren’t even any stretch marks to signal that the body had once fallen into gluttonous times. She was wearing hoop earrings, and a big plastic butterfly held back her shoulder-length hair, the Color of Wella Copper Sunrise. The only sign of aging on her face was the crows’ feet at the corner of each eye, and only a faultfinder would notice them. She was right; God was good to her.

As they drove from the airport, Diva gazed out of the car window. The past twelve years had shaken the island’s monocrop system into a diversified economy that had changed the landscape. What had once been a swath of earth corduroyed by sugar plantations stretching interminably on up to the horizon had been colonized by commercialism. Standing on a former canefield was Golden Fields, which was a cluster of restaurants dwarfed by a casino hotel rising majestically at its hub. Sugarland Hotel, which belonged to an earlier era, tried to hold on to its dignity but its jagged top gave it the comic look of a rectangular bottle cap turned upside down. This was where their class had held their high school prom. Lita explained that its upper floors had been lopped off when it was discovered that it was too dangerously near the airport runway.

Before they reached the heart of downtown, Lita pointed to the circumferential road that drivers took to avoid the traffic snarls. Traffic snarls in Bacolod? Diva was incredulous. She remembered her adolescent eagerness to escape the city because its chronic somnolence had weighed her down unbearably.

Diva was pleased to see a workers’ rally going on in front of the provincial capitol, although it was a just a small group of about a dozen men. They were holding placards and listening to someone holding a megaphone. A red streamer bore the hyphenated name of the local trade union and its national counterpart, like a woman declaring her independence despite her married status. Snatches of their leader’s speech reached Diva through Lita’s chatter. The phrases were familiar: “minimum wage law” and “amelioration law” and “SSS benefits.” People walked past without pausing or turning to see what was going on.

Lita swung right into a four-lane highway that cut across another former sugar plantation and stretched around the circumference of the city, like Life that had suddenly gone off tangent and then decided to take a meandering route to its destinations. A road sign read, “Don’t stick your elbow out to far/It might go home in another car.” It must have been the mayor’s most inspired moment in his term when he’d hired a modern Aesop for the Traffic Management Office. Here was at least a moral lesson with wit and rhyme, never mind if the spelling was flawed.

Suburban villages, gated and guarded, were just beginning to spread but were obviously taking a while to fill up, like batter slowly filling up the little squares on the waffle iron. The numerous empty lots were overgrown with cogon grass. But what few houses there were had a neglected look to them.

As Lita drove on, the old ruins of a mansion loomed up behind a row of these empty lots. Diva suddenly recalled having come to explore these ruins in the middle of prom night with Lita and Rene and another boy named Tony.

“Oh look!” Diva exclaimed. “It’s the Duertas mansion. Remember we had such a hard time searching for it, when there weren’t any houses near here?”

Lita looked at her blankly for a few seconds and then saved herself. “What a photographic memory you have! You know what a scatterbrain I am—I can’t remember anything beyond a year ago.”

Lita’s indifference was quite understandable. Prom night had happened 35 years ago, when the real estate business had not yet eaten into the sugarcane. They had sneaked out of the ballroom to confirm for themselves the rumors that such a mansion existed hereabouts. But bankruptcy, land reform, and time had stripped the ruined mansion of its mythical cloak. It was now just a heavyset straggler in full view among the streamlined specimens of modern architecture.

A full moon had helped Diva and her three companions glimpse its distantly small silhouette from the highway, but it was mainly Rene’s determination that had compelled them to find the old dirt road that led to it, despite the undergrowth. Fray Duertas’ marble statue still stood in front of the ruins, although weeds and vines had sprouted from cracks on his head and chest and tumbled down his sides. The first and second steps of the stairway leading from the ground were split apart by a sugarcane plant obtusely growing through them.

They’d made a pact never to reveal their secret find and to visit it together every year thereafter until they died. Of course, after graduation, Diva’s life had completely veered away from theirs. She had buried the memory of Prom Night along with that of all her other adolescent disasters. The mansion hadn’t been significant enough for Lita to remember it either.

The car turned into a gated driveway as Lita explained, “I want to show you what Rene and I worked on together just before he died.”

They stopped at a three-storey building whose façade had a large plastic sign on it that read “Nirvana Spa.” The building had a deserted look but Diva guessed that it was too early yet for anyone to be around, not even the staff. 

They had built the spa together six years ago, Lita said as she guided Diva around the grounds. After they’d sold the farm, Rene had had more time to devote to the charismatic movement. Then their prayer group leader had offered them the construction job, with Rene as contractor and Lita as the supplies purchaser. God surely knew how to provide, to Him be the glory. And then, when the spa was built, Rene had such wonderful ideas about how to run the business that the owner had asked him to stay on as its manager. But Negros was no longer living on sucrodollars. The hacenderos were having to make hard choices. Were they willing to give up the golf and country club for the spa? Would their wives prefer a year’s pampering at the spa to the occasional trips to Hong Kong?

“It must have been the pressure of his work here that killed him,” Lita said. But Rene did leave her a priceless legacy. He was the only person who could make her feel so intelligent and competent. He had trusted her with the financial side of the construction and had given her the self-confidence to deal with the hardware suppliers, who would have cheated them every chance they could if she hadn’t had the nerve to stand up to them. She had cut the construction budget to more than three million pesos.

And, in the same reverent tone with which Lita acknowledged Divine Providence for every turn in her life, good or bad, she said, “But of course, Rene coached me every step of the way.”

The next day was Sunday and that morning Diva was watching Manang Ine fix breakfast. The cook dropped some oil into a Teflon skillet whose surface had peeled off in patches, like reptilian skin. Then she laid several slices of bacon on it. More oil oozed out of the bacon. The smell of it was as thick and sharp as that of burning tire.

Hay, Inday,” Manang Ine said, “everyone was so surprised gid when Toto Rene suddenly died. But he and Inday Lita were celebrating his championship that night and she cooked him all his favorite dishes. I think bad wind must have entered his stomach while he was eating, and he forgot to belch before going to sleep. That is how people die, you know. My husband and I made itot one night and when he withdrew, the air blew into his pitoy and he died.”

Diva was still digesting this bit of elemental wisdom when the cook added, “Te, now I have to go and dust the flowers. Just call if you need anything.”

Lita was still in her room. Ever since she joined the charismatic movement six years ago, she spent her first waking hour vouchsafing her day to God. Now she was dressing to go to church. There had been a moment of awkwardness when she had emerged and reminded Diva that Sunday mass would be in an hour. Diva had distracted her by remarking on her lipstick, which she thought Lita had accidentally smeared on the area around her lips. Oh no, Lita said, pleased that Diva had noticed. She had discovered the new style in which lipstick was being worn these days. You painted outside the line of your lips for that pouty, come-on look. Ah, Diva said, it was woman’s revolt against Nature’s stinginess. And the shade was called Celebrating Vanity, Lita went on, choosing not to hear what she couldn’t comprehend. Wasn’t that so imaginative? Make-up was no longer being used merely to color one’s face; one could actually put on a new one over one’s skin. But now she had to go back to her bedroom to put on the rest of it.

Alone in the kitchen, Diva looked around for a teaspoon for her coffee. As Diva pulled open a drawer, it erupted with table napkins, each with a dainty cross-stitched pattern on one corner. More drawers revealed more of them, piled in rows according to sets of flora, fauna, days of the week, nursery rhyme characters. It was a whole aviary of folded linen set upon by hands maniacal with purposeless activity. Diva was pulling another drawer open when Lita came in and, seeing her coffee mug, pulled out the drawer where the spoons were kept.

“I’m sorry you have to fend for yourself,” Lita said as she handed Diva a teaspoon. “My other maid quit last week when I scolded her about letting the dog out of the gate. It got run over by a truck and I was so angry I shouted at her. Of course I was sorry for it afterwards and immediately went to confession. But the next morning she quit.”

She opened a cabinet and showed Diva the cans of dog food still stacked there. She had bought this particular brand because the dog’s picture on the label had looked like her own poor dead Sputnik. Oh, how she had loved that dog! And it was so expensive too. So, could anyone blame her if she had lost her temper at that maid? Ay abaw, these maids gid ya, they were so different these days. Imagine, their amo saved them from a life of hardship as farm girls by bringing them to the city. But this was how they repaid such kindness, she mourned.

“I know charity begins at home, but it’s so hard to be charitable sometimes. They are ka pilosopo na gid ya bala! Can you explain  it to me, Divina?”

Because you’re the class enemy and charity is a matter of praxis, Diva was tempted to say. But now she just wanted to pursue the question, What breed of dog was  it?—so she could empathize with the depth of Lita’s grief. Here she was, barely out of mourning over a dead husband. And now, there was a dead dog. Was there a difference?

“Oh well,” Diva murmured, “let sleeping dogs lie.”

She was a good person, Diva tried to convince herself. She had the fear of God in her and she did favors for the less fortunate. Somewhere else, people were numbing each other’s brain to the same degree discussing truth and justice. Or gorillas and guerillas.

Diva waved one embroidered napkin and exclaimed, “But there must be hundreds of these embroidered napkins in all these drawers! Did you do them all?”

If there could have been a basis for solidarity between the two of them, it was that they had been the two girls in school to whom Sr. ingeberta had frequently exclaimed, “Oh you lazybones! I pity the man who marries you.”

And she would hold up Diva’s and Lita’s sewing projects as harbingers of failed marriages. It was because of this that Diva had never picked up needle-and-thread nor pot-and-pan for any man. But Lita had gone the opposite way and made it her mission for the rest of her life to prove Sr. Ingeberta wrong.

“Oh, I did all that sewing whenever I waited up for Rene to come home,” Lita said. And she painted a picture of a 28-year marriage spent cross-stitching and crocheting while sitting at her bay window. She had done most of the waiting the year just before he died, when he had spent more and more time at the spa. That had been a very trying time for him, marketing it to the locals, so he had to find a way to attract foreign tourists to Bacolod… Lita’s voice trailed off as she stared at her coffee—as black, Diva imagined, as the nights she had stared at from her window during her married life.

She couldn’t complain, Lita said. Rene had been such a good provider. He had made sure she was secure for life. The house was fully paid for and they had savings. And then, of course, there was his insurance. With these altogether, Lita could still travel at least once a year. He had sold the hacienda just in time too—just before the sugar crisis had hit the region. Now that the hacenderos were desperate to sell, it was too late. Who would want to buy an hacienda, with all its problems?

Problems. This was a new word in Lita’s vocabulary. Perhaps her widowhood had finally forced her to take on matters that used to be Rene’s sole burden to carry. “What problems were you having?” Diva asked.

Ay, ambot ah!” Lita said. “I don’t know anything about that. I just know that Rene worried about it for a while until he finally managed to sell it. I’m so stupid about such things. But when it comes to my family life I’m proud to say I made very few mistakes. Basta, at home I made him relax and absolutely forbade him to talk about his money problems. I really knew how to keep Rene very happy till the day he died.” And she let go with her trademark laugh.

Everybody just wanted the chance to take centerstage and sing their aria in the key of Me: me me me me me me me! Do re Me fa so la Me do! All Diva had to do was give them the cue to burst into it. But this was the first time she had ever listened to an aria that switched willy-nilly from Me major to minor and back again.

“That’s quite a feat, you know, considering the Ilonggo hacendero’s playboy reputation,” she said. “Some of them are found dead of a heart attack on top of some other woman not their wife.”

Lita shrugged. “Maybe he had his queridas too. But this I’m very sure of, Divina. He would never have left me.” She had been the perfect wife to him; her only regret was that she had been at her ugliest when he was alive but never looked better in her life now that he was dead. Pero te, she had lost all that weight because she had deeply, deeply mourned him gani.

“The funny thing is he was the one who kept himself fit. He played golf regularly. Hay, we never really know what is God’s plan for us.” And Lita led her out of the kitchen to point overhead at Rene’s trophies. They were lined on a shelf running the length of the living room walls beneath the ceiling. Tendrils of plastic vine curled themselves around some of them and hung from the shelf to soften their masculine effect. Manang Ine was as already standing on a chair and wiping the dust off their leaves.

“But he wasn’t eating right,” Diva said. “With his heart condition, there must have been a lot of things he wasn’t allowed to eat.”

What good was exercise if Lita clogged her husband’s arteries with fat and sodium? Diva knew this type of women. They cooked and baked and jumped at their husband’s call and made him a present of such devotion and self-sacrifice that they sucked all the power out of him. And the husband, if he was a decent man, was grateful for this servility but felt guilty for feeling trapped by it. Women like Lita made their home an impregnable fortress of expectations which their husband had the moral and emotional obligation to fulfill. Now could Rene resist Lita’s lechon kawali and mango cream pie? She had even eschewed the social life that a cooking class might have provided, taking a private tutor so she could concentrate solely on his favorite dishes. How could Rene not love her back?

Hay, Divina,” Lita sighed. “You know naman men.” It was a loud, theatrical sigh, meant to convey affectionate exasperation with the object of their conversation. But it was overlaid with her amused sense of superiority over Diva’s failure of understanding.

She had once tried to regulate his diet, but it had only annoyed him, she said. He had asked, What was life worth living for if he couldn’t enjoy it? She had no argument against that, because she agreed with him entirely. If she had tried to stop him having what he wanted, he would only have looked for it outside. Surely Divina knew where that would have led to. One day it’s mango cream pie they’re looking for in Manila hotels, the next thing you know they’ve got some fashion model or starlet that they’ve picked up there. It was a wife’s pious duty to keep her husband happy. Hay, these men! Lita sighed again. Besides, it was probably sunstroke that killed him. The night he died, it had been the hottest day of the year but he was playing for the championship in the golf tournament. There was a pause as Lita struggled with some decision she was trying to make.

Suddenly she gave a nervous giggle. She had a secret she was bursting with but couldn’t find anyone open-minded enough to listen without blaming her for Rene’s death, she said. But Divina had always been the one person in the world who was impossible to shock anyway. Lita paused—for dramatic effect or for the right words, Diva wasn’t sure. The confession finally came out in one staccato spurt.

“We’d made love that night.” But Lita’s voice went one decibel higher instead of lower as confessional tones were supposed to go. What was this sudden unearned intimacy with Lita supposed to signify? Was Diva supposed to thrill to it, be touched by the tender emotions the imagined scene was meant to evoke? She felt the same kind of discomfort that she had once felt the first time, as a child, she had seen a pair of dogs attached to each other on.the street outside her bedroom window.

“When I woke up the next morning, he wasn’t breathing. And was that. Oh, I felt so guilty. But my only consolation was that he died in my arms.” Lita’s eyes were beginning to well with tears. One rolled down her left cheek and Diva reached out to wipe it off with a cross-stitched Little Miss Muffet and her spider. “A lot of other wives weren’t as blessed as I was with such a good husband. It was truly a marriage made in heaven. I miss him gid ya bala, Divina. I worshipped him so much.”

Despite herself, Diva was moved by the desolation in Lita’s voice. The only thing sadder than remembering a past full of a loved one’s presence is imagining a future full of their absence. But suddenly the sparkle in Lita’s eyes and her brilliant smile were back. “But you know, throughout it all, I never lost my faith in God. I really believe in the power of prayer. After all, pain is pain but you create your own suffering.”

She was doing it again; she was pole vaulting from somber to chirpy to platitudinous and back again. Listening to Lita was like sitting through all the messages in one’s answering machine.

When Diva asked to be dropped off at the real estate office on Lita’s way to the church, Lita did so without question, except for the raised eyebrow that questioned why anyone would be working on the Lord’s day. She had never been one to show interest in anything to do with anyone’s preoccupation except hers. Anyone who didn’t know her would praise her for minding her own business.

Mr. Santos, the branch manager, drove Diva to the property that she had been sent to Bacolod to sell. She was not very surprised when he turned off the main road into a gated driveway and stopped at the building called “Nirvana Spa.” Diva could not pin down exactly when she had begun to see that Lita never did anything that was coincidental or unplanned.

“Let me warn you it’s not as good as it looks,” Mr. Santos said as he unlocked the door. “The building is barely six years old but it’s falling apart already. I don’t know if we can sell this at the owner’s asking price.” They walked around the reception area and he pointed at the boarded windows and at the cracks running like lightning jags along the walls. Very few of the windowpanes were still intact. The whole place had the disgusting smell of public latrines.

“All the toilets are clogged,” Mr. Santos said, shaking his head. “The plumber who was called in said that the pipes for the toilet bowl were so small not even pigeon shit could squeeze through them.” The purchaser had scrimped millions of pesos on the construction budget by buying inferior materials and then pocketed the money, Mr. Santos went on to explain, with his vocabulary getting more and more colorful by the sentence. And of course, the contractor and purchaser always worked as a team. They were an incompetent pair of cheats, obviously. No finesse. Sus! Ka bahol gid ya. You could tell they weren’t used to doing it. They got away with it only because they and the owner, Mr. Tony Ramas, were in the same prayer cell in the charismatic group, so Tony trusted them completely. It was just as well the contractor had died three years ago, just when all the structural defects were beginning to surface, or he’d have been criminally liable.

Diva said, “Maybe it was the waiting to be discovered that killed him? He must’ve been out of his mind to think he could pull this off.”

Mr. Santos shrugged. “Or suicidal.”

He added, “It gets worse,” and led her to the wing of the building that contained the suites. He opened the door to the first room but didn’t look in. He was looking at her face instead as it registered shock at the paintings on the ceiling and the walls. They were the kind of paintings that Diva guessed one would see in brothels or theme motels in red-light districts. They were arranged in panels, like a giant cartoon strip without the speech balloons but with a storyline leading up to a graphically obscene punchline.

She could, not stop herself from uttering a sharp cry, which Mr. Santos could only assume had something to do with moral squeamishness. But it was Rene that Diva was seeing on the walls. Rene trying to keep his land by taking bank loans and paying them off with other bank loans until all the unpaid debts finally caught up with him. Rene paying the mortgage on his house with the sale of an hacienda that was itself in danger of foreclosure. Rene with arms raised and eyes tightly shut, hollering Lord save us! and To God be the glory! and silently praying that Tony Ramas his best friend and fellow charismatic would give him the construction job though he had never built anything in his life. Rene saving millions on Tony’s construction budget and siphoning them into his account because the hardware suppliers had convinced him everyone did it anyhow and he had three children still in college. And when the building was finished, Rene presenting Tony with business proposals for the spa so that Tony would hire him to manage it because where was Rene going to get the money for the children’s tuition and the upkeep of the house and the cars and his mother’s dialysis treatments? Rene promising Tony that the business would break even soon he had fresh new ideas for it no one had ever thought to combine the spa and the convention business just give him three months and they would tap Japanese and Australian businessmen as their main clientele. Rene explaining himself to the Catholic Women’s League and to his own charismatic group and finally to the Bishop who was glad to distract the people’s attention from the rumors that he himself was being sued by a basketball player for molestation. Rene striding from one green to another whacking at golf balls because he was going crazy from not being allowed to pace up and down his bedroom that was also Lita’s.

“What happened to the purchaser?” Diva at last asked Mr. Santos.

“She was the manager’s wife. The owner feels it’s awkward to be going after the grieving widow now. She’s in his prayer group as well. It was probably the husband who plotted it all anyway, and she just went along with it. You know how Bacolod wives are—they try to be the supportive partner but they never interfere.”

Mr. Santos drove her back to Lita’s empty house, where she intended to stay just long enough to take her bag and simply vanish from Lita’s life again. But as she rolled her bag out of the room, she knew she first had to ask the questions teeming in her head. Lita had come upon her sitting in the living room, staring out the bay window. “You knew I was coming into town even before I did, didn’t you?” Diva asked.

“You know there are no secrets in Bacolod,” Lita said.

“How did you think having me as your houseguest would help?”

“I wanted you to see what we were really like, Rene and I—what it was like for us those last few years. If it hadn’t been for me, we would have lost everything. The hacienda would have been foreclosed if I hadn’t nagged him to sell. He was so sentimental. He wanted to keep it because it has been in their family since encomienda times.”

“You could have lived on the hacienda sale. But you were living above your means. He had to scrounge around for money because you were clinging to your affluent lifestyle.”

“Don’t make him out to be more than he really was, Divina. He liked the lifestyle. He—and all his other women. I would have lived a thrifty life if the two of us were doing it. But why should I have to scrimp while he was throwing whatever we had left on that model he was keeping in Manila? And before that there was the starlet, to whom he was sending child support. And there was the farm girl—the one I know about. I don’t know how many other farm girls there were. Believe me, I know what pole vaulting means.”

Lita’s laugh this time was bitter. “What do you think was playing on my imagination during all those nights he spent at the spa?”

“Well, you weren’t much competition.” Diva was horrified to hear herself sounding like the gossips in an aerobics class.

“You don’t know how many diets I tried all our married life. Cabbage soup, Herbalife, Slimfast, Scarsdale—I tried everything. All he had to do was take me to a restaurant and my willpower would vanish.”

“You weren’t much help to his heart, either, with your cheap little tenderloin trick…”

“That was long before he had a heart condition.”

“… and your what-me-worry-philosophy …”

“And how does not worrying aggravate a heart condition? … Wait a minute.” Lita’s brows furrowed as she struggled to catch a thought and hold it. “Didn’t you have a crush on Rene?”

Diva didn’t answer. A lightning flash had ripped open the past and Lita had had a sudden glimpse of a ghost in it. Lita went on, “Why, yes of course. Our yearbook labeled you the class’s hormonal retard. But you were just hiding behind that mountain of books because you had a crush on Rene.”

“Rene was a good man, Lita. When I knew him, he was a good person.”

“He was, Divina. So was I. We were both good persons.”

At the airport the next morning, they managed to hug each other, and Lita made her promise to stay with her whenever she came to Bacolod. Diva said yes of course. Both of them knew they would never hear from each other again.

As the plane slowly taxied forward, Diva watched the ground and felt that she was moving backward—like she was moving away foul something—while the plane stood still. She had almost completely forgotten, until yesterday, Rene’s big-brother kindness 35 years ago and the diffident way he’d offered to be her prom date, as if she had the option to refuse him. At the prom, he’d sat out all the dances with her after he’d felt her agony during the first dance, and he was careful not to let his gaze linger on her classmates. They were all Twiggy-thin in their ball gowns after putting themselves through weeks of excruciating hunger spasms. And they were dancing with an ease that belied all the grim determination they’d put into practicing the boogie and the slow drag.

He’d brought her physical stupidity out in the open so she could laugh at it. “Okay, Divina you’re not. How about if I call you Diva? One day you’re going to be so rich and famous you’ll be too big for this little town. And you’ll forget all about us.”

Then he drew out of her what she could do best—conversation. It was when they were talking about ghosts and kapres that they’d almost simultaneously thought of sneaking out of the prom and looking for the ruins in the canefield. Lita was several tables away with Tony, but she must have noticed Rene helping Diva into her coat. She and Tony had joined them to make it a foursome, wherever it was Rene and Diva were going.

Rene had been the persistent one even when Diva herself was ready to give up the search for that elusive mansion. Lita and Tony, after seeing the shadows of the ruins in the moonlight, were content to sit on a rock at the edge of the canefield and wait for them there. As soon as Rene found the pathway, he raced along it, the sugarcane plants level with his head. Then he turned and waved impatiently at Diva as he waited for her at the top of the mansion’s stairway. But she had to pick her way though the field, because she was wearing high-heeled shoes; and the serrated leaves of the sugarcane plants occasionally caught at her skirt. Besides, there were things half-buried in the ground that were gleaming in the moonlight, and she wasn’t sure if they were pieces of discarded sugarcane or the bones of the dead.

Diva was jolted back to the present when the plane finally took off. Ed would be at the airport at the other end, munching a hotdog sandwich while waiting for her. He would ask as he took her overnight bag from her, “How was the trip?”

And because they were husband and wife, because she had no one else to tell her story to, she would tell him about the many ways she’d learned a man could die of a heart attack. She could almost hear him say as he concentrated on his driving, “Ah well, dead men tell no tales.”

But then again, sometimes he could also surprise her with something specific to her story, like “Some things about a person you’re better off not knowing.”

Rosario Cruz Lucero was born in Manila but grew up in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental. She earned her AB, MA, and Ph.D. degrees from the University of the Philippines Diliman. Besides the Palanca and Philippines Free Press Literary Awards, she has also won the Manila Critics Circle's National Book Award and the CCP Gantimpalang Ani for the short story in Filipino. Her books include the short story collections Herstory [1990], Feast and Famine: Stories of Negros [2003], and La India, or Island of the Disappeared [2012], and the historical romance Dungawin Natin ang Kahapon (Look Back to the Past) [1992]. Her literary criticism is collected in Ang Bayan sa Labas ng Maynila/The Nation Beyond Manila [2007]. She teaches Philippine literature and creative writing in Filipino and English at the UP Diliman.

The Black Monkey


Two weeks already she had stayed in the hut on the precipice, alone except for the visits of her husband. Carlos came regularly once a day and stayed two or three hours, but his visits seemed to her too short and far between. Sometimes, after he had left and she thought she would be alone again, one or the other of the neighbors came up unexpectedly, and right away those days became different, or she became different, in a subtle, but definite way. For the neighbors caused a disturbed balance which was relieving and necessary. Sometimes it was one of the women coming up with ripe fruits, papayas, perhaps, or wild ink berries, or guavas. Sometimes the children, to grind her week’s supply of corn meat in the cubby hole downstairs. Their chirps and meaningless giggles broke the steady turn of the stone grinder, and scraped to a slow agitation the thoughts that had settled and almost hardened in the bottom of her mind. She would have liked it better if these visits were longer, but they could not be; for the folks came to see her, yet she couldn’t come to them and she, a sick woman, wasn’t really with them as they sat there with her. The women were uneasy in the hut and she could say nothing to the children, and it seemed it was only when the men came up to see her when there was the presence of real people. Real people and she real with them.

As when old Emilio and Sergio left their carabaos standing to one side of the clearing and crossed the river at low tide to climb up the path on the precipice, their faces showing brown and leathery in the filtered sunlight of the forest as they approached her door. Coming in and sitting on the floor of the eight-by-ten but where she lay, looking at her and chewing tobacco, clayey legs crossed easily, they brought about them the strange electric feeling of living together, of shouting one to another across the clearing, each driving his beast, of riding the bullcart into the timber to load dead trunks for firewood, of listening in a screaming silence inside their huts at night to the sound of real or imagined shots or explosions, and mostly of another kind of silence, the kind that bogged down between the furrows when the sun was hot and the soil stony and the breath for words lay tight and furry upon their tongues. They were slow of words even when at rest, rousing themselves to talk mumblingly and vaguely after long periods of chewing.

Thinking to interest her, their talk would be of the women’s doings, soap-making and the salt project, and who made the most coconut oil that week, whose dog was caught sucking eggs from whose poultry shed, how many lizards and monkeys they had trapped and killed in the cornfields and yards around the four houses. Listening to them was hearing a remote story heard once before and strange enough now to be interesting again, But it was also annoyingly like the more actual discomfort of the last three weeks-located in her body, it was true, but not so much a real pain as a deadness and heaviness everywhere, at once inside of her as well as outside.

When the far nasal bellowing of their carabaos came up across the river, the two men rose to go and clumsy with sympathy they stood at the doorstep spitting out quick casual streaks of tobacco and betel nut as they stretched their leave with last remarks. Marina wished for her mind to go on following them down the cliff to the river and across to the clearing, to the group of four huts on the knoll where smoke spiraled blue glints and grey from the charcoal pits, and the children chased scampering monkeys back into the forested slopes only a few feet away. But when the men turned around the path and disappeared, they were really gone, and she was really alone again.

From the pallet where she lay a few inches from the door, all she could see were the tops of ipil-ipil trees arching over the damp humus soil of the forest, and a very small section of the path leading from her hut downward along the edge of the precipice to the river where it was a steep short drop of twenty or thirty feet to the water. They used a ladder on the bushy side of the cliff to climb up and down the path, let down and drawn up again, and no one from outside the area could know of the secret hut built so close to guerrilla headquarters. When the tide was low and the water drained toward the sea, the river was shallow in some parts and the ladder could be reached, wading on a pebbly stretch to the base of the cliff. At high tide an outrigger boat had to be rowed across. They were fortunate to have the hiding place, very useful to them every time the guerrillas reported a Japanese patrol prowling around the hills and they all had to run from their huts on the knoll below.

Three weeks ago in the night they had all fled up to the forest thinking a patrol had finally penetrated. That night she had twisted her kneecap. Marina remembered how she and Flavia and Flavia’s daughter had groped their way up the precipice behind their faster neighbors, how the whole of that night the three of them had cowered in this dark hut while all around the monkeys gibbered in the leaves, and pieces of voices from a group of guerrillas on the river pierced into the forest like thin splintered glass. And all the time the whispered talk of their neighbors who were crouched in the crevices of the high rocks above them floated down like echoes of the whispers in her own mind. Finally there was no pain, only numbness when the whole leg swelled up. Nobody knew the reason for the alarm sounded by headquarters until the next morning when Carlos and two other guerrillas paddled around the river from camp and told everyone to come down from the precipice; it was not enemy troops but the boys chasing after the Japanese prisoner who had escaped.

Following the information of Carlos, old Emilio and the others returned to the huts on the knoll. Only she had stayed, through three weeks now. The doctor had come in and set the knee-she did not want to think about that. Paralysed on one side, she chose to stay here. Up in this hut she was a liability to no one in case of danger. And she had to stay until the Japanese prisoner was caught. This was guerrilla area; if he had been able to slip across the channel to Cebu, they could expect a Japanese invasion. No one need worry about her even then, for she would be safe in this hideout.

Listening closely for several nights, she had learned to distinguish the noises made by the monkey in the tree nearest her door. She was sure the tree had only one tenant, a big one, because the sounds it made were so heavy and definite. She would hear a precise rustle, just as if it shifted once in its sleep and was quiet again, or when the rustling was continuous for a while, she knew it was looking for a better perch and perhaps muttering a little at its discomfort. Sometimes there were precipitate rubbing sounds and a thud and she concluded it had accidentally slipped and landed on the ground. She always heard it arrive late at night, long after the forest had settled down… Even now as she lay quietly, she knew the invisible group of monkeys had begun to come; she knew from the soughing that started from far up the slope, a sound like wind on the water, gradually coming downward.

She must have been asleep about four hours when she awoke uneasily. She was aware of movements under the hut. It was about a couple of hours before dawn. Blackness had pushed into the room heavily and moistly, sticky damp around her eyes, under her chin and down the back of her neck, where it prickled like fine hair creeping on end. Her light had burned out. Something was fumbling at the door of the compartment below the floor, where the supply of rice and corn was stored in tall bins. The door was pushed and rattled cautiously, slow thuds of steps moved around the house. Whatever it was, it circled the hut once, twice, and stopped again to jerk at the door. It sounded like a monkey, perhaps the monkey in the tree trying to break in the door for the corn and rice. it seemed to her it took care not to pass the stairs, retracing its steps around the side of the hut each time so she could not see it through her open door. Hearing the sounds and seeing nothing, she felt it imperative to look at the intruder. She set her face to the long slit at the base of the wall, and the quick chilly wind came at her like a whisper suddenly flung into her face. Trees defined her line of vision, merged blots that seemed to possess life and feeling running through them like thin humming wires. The footsteps had come from that unknown boundary and must have resolved back into it because she could not hear them anymore. She was deciding the creature had gone away when she saw a stooping shape creep along the wall and turn back, slipping by so quickly she could deceive herself into believing she imagined it. A short, stooping creature. Its footsteps were heavy and regular and then unexpectedly running together as if the feet were tired or sore. She had suspected the monkey but didn’t feel sure, even seeing the quick shape she didn’t feel sure, until she heard the heavy steps turn toward the tree. Then she could distinguish clearly the rubbing sounds as it hitched itself up.

She strained to hear more sounds but not even the small insects clinging oil the under part of the leaves were stirring. Slowly and piece by piece she relaxed. For somebody-anybody! If Flavia’s daughter didn’t have tile malaria-She told herself she was more irritated than afraid; for the monkey knew she was there, she was sure it knew and its keen primeval instincts must have also sensed her helplessness. Tile thought was repugnant. She lay on her side that didn’t have the numbness and stared out of tile door into tile trees. Tile lightening shadows moved like long talons scooping out grey caves and hollows in tile leaves. She couldn’t go back to sleep.

She had a great wish to be back below with the others. Now and then the wind blew momentary gaps through the leaves and she saw fog from the river, fog white and stringy floating over the four huts on the knoll. Along about ten in the morning the whole area below would be under the direct heat of the sun. Tile knoll was a sort of islet made by the river bending into a horseshoe shape; on this formation of the two inner banks the families had made their clearings and built their huts. On one outer bank tile guerrilla camp hid in a thick grove of madre-de-cacao and undergrowth, and the other outer bank, which was the other arm of the horseshoe, abruptly rose to the steep precipice where the secret hut stood. The hut buried in the trees, where she was safe because almost totally isolated. The families asleep on the knoll were themselves isolated, she thought; they were as on an island cut off by tile water and mountain ranges surrounding them; shut in with their fear of the enemy’s penetration they played a game with it, each one tossing his thought to the others, no one keeping it privately, no one really taking a deliberate look at it in the secrecy of his own mind. In tile hut it seemed she must play it out by herself, toss it back and forth, back and forth.

Threads of mist tangled under the trees. Light pricked through like suspended raindrops; the wind carried up the sound of paddling from the river. In a little while she heard a voice calling down the path. Carlos. When he was near the hut, she heard him distinctly. Neena! Neena! Her name seemed to explode through the air, it came like a shock after the hours of stealthy noises.

He took the three rungs of the steps in one stride and was beside her on the floor. Always lie came in a flood of size and motion and she couldn’t see all of him at once. A smell of stale sun and hard walking clung to his clothes and stung into her; it was the smell of many people and many places and the room felt even smaller with him in it. In a quick gesture that had become a habit he touched the back of his hand on her forehead.

“Good.” He announced, “no fever.”

With Carlos’ presence the room bulged with the sense of people activity, pointing tip with unbearable sharpness her isolation, her fears, her helplessness.

“I can’t stay up here,” she told him, not caring anymore whether he despised her cowardice. “I must go down. There is something here. You don’t know what’s happening. You don’t know, or you won’t make me stay.”

He looked at her and then around the room as though her fear squatted there listening to them.

“It’s the monkey again.”

“Man or monkey or devil—I can’t stay up here anymore.”

“Something must be done,” he said; “this can’t go on.”

“I’ll go down and be with the others.”

He raised his head, saying wearily, “I wish that were the best thing. God knows I wish it were. You decided this yourself, and very wisely, Neena. You must go down only when you’re ready. These are critical days for all of us in this area. If something breaks—the Jap, you know—think what will happen to you down there, with me at headquarters. You’ve known of reprisals.”

He looked at her and his sooty black eyes were like the bottom of a deep drained well. “I wish I could be here at night. What I am saying is this: it’s a job you must do by yourself, since nobody is allowed out of headquarters after dark. That monkey must be shot or you’re not safe here anymore.”

“You know I can’t shoot.”

“We are continuing your lessons. You still remember, don’t you?”

“It was long ago and it was not really in earnest.”

He inspected the chambers of the rifle. “You didn’t need it then.”

He put his rifle into her hands.

She lifted it and as its weight yielded coldly to her hands, she said suddenly, “I’m glad we’re doing this.”

“You remember how to use the sight?”

“Yes,” and she could not help smiling a little. “All the o’clocks you, taught me.”

“Aim it and shoot.”

She aimed at a scar on the trunk of the tree near the door, the monkey’s tree. She pressed on the trigger. Nothing happened. She pressed it again. “It isn’t loaded.”

“It is.”

“The trigger won’t. move. Something’s wrong.”

He took it from her. It’s locked; you forgot it as usual.” He put it aside. “Enough now, you’ll do. But you unlock first. Remember, nothing can ever come out of a locked gun.”

He left early in the afternoon, about two o’clock.

Just before sundown, the monkey came. It swung along the trees on the edge of the precipice and leaped down on the path and wandered around near the hut. It must be very, very hungry, she thought, with a little wonder which she could not help. It must be very hungry or it would not be so bold. It sidled forward, all the time eyeing her intently, inching toward the grain room below the stairs. As it suddenly rushed toward her, all the anger and frustration of the last two years of war seemed to unite into one necessity and she snatched up the gun, shouting and screaming, “Get out! Thief! Thief!”

The monkey wavered. It did not understand the pointed gun she brandished. It came forward softly, slowly, its feet hardly making any sound on the ground. She aimed, and as it slipped past the stairs and was rounding the corner to the grain room, she fired again and once again, straight into its back.

The loud explosions resounded through the trees. The birds in the forest flew in confusion and their high excited chatter floated down through the leaves. But she didn’t hear them—that only was real, the twisting, grunting shape near the stairs, and after a minute it was quiet.

She couldn’t help laughing a little, couldn’t help her strange exhilaration. The black monkey was dead, it was dead, she had killed it. Strangely, too, she was thinking of the escaped prisoner somewhere in the range, and it was part of the strangeness that she feared him but was curious about him. And then she knew: now she could think of him openly to herself. She could even talk about him now. She could talk of him to Carlos and to anybody and not hide the sneaking figure of him with the other black terrors in her mind.

She was still holding the gun. This time, she thought, she had unlocked it. And with rueful certainty she knew she could do it again, tonight, tomorrow, whenever it was necessary. The chatter of some monkeys came from far up in the forest. From that distance it was a vague, a lost sound; hearing it jarred across her little triumph and she wished, like someone lamenting a lost innocence, that she had never seen a gun nor fired one.

Edith Lopez Tiempo was born in Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya in 1919. After her marriage to Edilberto Tiempo in 1940, the couple moved to Dumaguete City, where she earned her BA in English in 1947. She later pursued her MA at the University of Iowa as part of the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, graduating in 1950. In 1958, she earned her Ph.D. at the University of Denver in Colorado in 1958. In 1962, together with her husband, she co-founded the Silliman University National Writers Workshop. Her books include the short story collection Abide, Joshua and Other Stories [1964], the poetry collections The Tracks of Babylon and Other Poems [1966], The Charmer's Box and Other Poems [1993], Beyond, Extensions [1993], and Marginal Annotations and Other Poems [2010], and the novels A Blade of Fern [1978], His Native Coast [1979], The Alien Corn [1992], One, Tilting Leaves [1995], and The Builder [2004]. She has also published books on literary criticism, including Six Uses of Fictional Symbols [2004] and Six Poetry Formats and the Transforming Image [2008]. She has received awards from the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas from UMPIL, as well as from the Palanca and the Philippines Free Press. She was proclaimed National Artist for Literature in 1999. She died in 2011.

Menandro’s Boulevard


This is my bench.

The boulevard has sixteen benches, miss.

How do you know?

I grew up here.

Grandfather, even beggars will not live here. It’s too cold and too windy at night.

I mean I just live over there.

Good. You go home now. It’s past your bedtime.

It is not.

I mean I want my bench.

It’s big enough, miss. Sit down, or sit over there.

I want this one, and I want to be alone. Someone’s coming for me. If he doesn’t see me on this bench he’ll think I’ve gone. And if he sees me with you—

All right. There’s your bench.

Thanks. Here—buy yourself some hot bread or some thing.

You’re new here, aren’t you?

Goodnight, grandfather.

Against two loops of the window grill, Menandro jammed the binoculars to steady it, hooked his pinkies on the nearest curlicues so his hands wouldn’t shake, and peered at the boulevard. She wasn’t there. Eight nights in a row he had watched her, the new girl with the furry black shoulder bag and the hungry child’s face that glowed a cold light when she laughed. He liked it better when she was alone and sad- looking; the bag hugged close to her small breasts. Then, though she had no way of knowing, he could inhabit her night until another man took her away in a car, on a motorcycle, on foot, and he could go to bed comforted that he had kept her company. This evening he had dragged the console closer to the window so he could sit with her. He really should have thought of that last week instead of punishing his feet. He stepped back from the window. Wings flapped in his stomach, a talon clawed its way up his solar plexus into his chest. Cold sweat erupted on his brows and palms. He leaned on the console, set the binoculars down on it. Damn acidity, he muttered. Must give up those lentils, and the scotch. The garlic vine outside the window rustled. Wind, dense with sea smells, rushed into the room. He took deep breaths. On his tongue gathered a faint taste of the city’s vile slop that roiled down sewers and culverts and ditches to the sea beyond the boulevard and hissed from it a dark storm that the wind blew over the promenade and into the houses facing it. When the city was younger, Menandro remembered, the boulevard smelled like a fresh bath.

He padded into the bathroom and rinsed his mouth with tap water. He gulped down the tepid water. The talon reed. A spill trickled down his chin into his pajamas. The annoying Dr Valde was joking. Was it that time of life already, and—he glanced at the mirror—was that the specter of past indulgences catching up on tired old flesh to log it, flay it to contrition?

He returned to the window. There! He brought the binoculars quickly to his eyes. A man staggered across the street and grassy island, across the promenade and u p the seawall to piss into the splashing dark.

She had already gone off with some other drunk, Menandro told himself. She had not yet come, it was early, not quite ten. She wasn’t coming at all, he decided to return home, miserably pregnant perhaps, in which case she was sensible, unlike this other boulevard woman many years ago, he recalled, who threw herself off the seawall and disgraced herself further by surviving.

At the pub two blocks away someone opened the door, laughter chased off-key singing into the street, motorcycles revved up and roared away. She could be in there, Menandro thought, maybe in the back room where there was reportedly dancing.

He put the binoculars down on the console, careful not to flip the framed photographs he had rearranged off to one side to clear a space for sitting on. It looked like the past reassembled, curious and questioning, behind the little ivory-faced Lady of Lourdes Pilaroca must certainly want packed in with the myriad other bric-a-brac and mementos listed in the letter he had not yet gone through beyond the first line which announced, unequivocally, she was leaving him.

He lifted the Lady. What now, what next? Her ivory melancholy seemed reproachful. You know I’m not to blame, Menandro whispered. Pilaroca’s scent wafted from the statuette. Pilaroca anointed most things she owned. Attar of roses was her proprietary stamp. One pfft from her atomizer and the merest calendar became personal belonging. Let her be, he whispered. No intercessions. Let her believe what she chooses, like she has always done.

He set the Lady down beside Pilaroca’s posy of silk flowers. It was ridiculous for their age, immature. She couldn’t even tell him to his face! Then he could have explained, and if she stayed adamant they could at least have played out this melodrama in a civilized, transparent manner that would spare the neighbors embarrassing speculations, mousy Teresing de Castro in the gabled house to the left and to the right the widow Ursulina who had just received an award from the Vatican, the classical-music-lovers Minggoy and Linette Vallarta in the next block, and in Madrid the cousins , what would they say? Even Carlitos and Concha Pastorfide two blocks away who used to visit regularly and drive out with Menandro and Pilaroca to Lourdes Farm whenever Menandro felt like looking in on the sugar cane, practically family, until Pilaroca told Concha it was vulgar of her to allow that epileptic Sabina Bondad to turn the entire Pastorfide ground floor into a bar and so kill the boulevard’s long cherished tradition of residential serenity. It was a scandal, Pilaroca declared. Now, in the letter he had thrust into the empty cigar box, hastily, as though it had fangs and a fatal temper, she had flung on the boulevard a sure-fire sensation. Menandro sighed. At their age!

He sat on the console. A group of boys wheeled by on bicycles, dogs yapped after a cat or a big rat, he didn’t bother to use binoculars. One gate after another swung open and uniformed maids emerged with waste baskets to discard its contents into the whitewashed garbage boxes ornamenting this side of the avenue. Three women who have been on the boulevard for years came to sit briefly on a bench, touched up the rouge on their cheeks, and click-clacked toward the pier in the distance where a ship swayed a string of deck lights reflected on the water. He would wait a while and see if the new girl came. He fell asleep with his head on the cold grill.

She wasn’t there the following night as well. That was expected. The afternoon had been overcast, acacia leaves drizzled into terraces and porches and the forgotten window, lightning cracked the evening sky, and rain fell as he sat down to supper of bread and vanilla milk. Dr Valde was right. The milk discouraged alcohol. The bread was too crusty, a bit unkind to the gums, but he did not want to have to get up later in the night to stuff a growling stomach.

He made another glass of vanilla milk and brought it to the living room. He switched on all the lamps. It was a living room comfortable, luxurious by boulevard standards. Had it really lived? A few genteel parties had been held there, some of Pilaroca’s Garden Club teas, small dinner-and -drinks with other directors of the planters’ association. The silvered casket of the glamorous Katrina had lain there, and so had the blue-gray of his naughty Bettina barely a year after. Two plane crashes, two lovely babies gone, just like that. He should have put his foot down and not let them go off to become flying servants. He should not have allowed them their way almost all the time, to begin with. But who could resist those eyes? Pilaroca could. She would have objected. She was the hard one. But she let him succumb to those eyes. It was good of her not to have turned on him at any time with blaming and yet he sensed, in this room, a recriminatory agenda to the acquisitions she had filled it with, the crystal and porcelain vases, brass urns and ceramic jars, terracotta bowls, pewter jugs and silver mugs from Mexico, cut-glass flasks, a chalice from Spain, a carved wooden humidor, jewel boxes of marble and jade, an enormous clay planter she refused to put a plant in. Menandro raised the cloissone lid on a jewel box, one of her first purchases after the funeral. It was empty, its black velvet lining free of dent or lint.

Menandro went out to the porch and sipped his milk. The downpour drummed on the roof. About the street lamps fine spray and mist formed iridescent globes. Menandro leaned on the balustrade and held out a palm The rain was cold. He gulped down the milk, set the glass down on the balustrade and stepped out into the pathway. The rain struck him like pellets of glass that broke on his skin and tore at his pajamas. He was drenched before he got to the gate. The asphalt was simmering obsidian river. He waded across. He sat on the dripping bench. He looked around him, at his old garden soaking in the rain. He wondered where the new girl was. She would have a home, of course. She was in bed by now, dry and warm and safe and sad-looking. She wouldn’t know he had been here. He began to shiver. The windows down the boulevard were closed and dark. The small neon Sabina Pub looked forlorn. He rose and waded across the street. His own windows were ablaze. He had forgotten to even close the front door. As he stood there in the streaming light, he knew what Pilaroca had done. She had brought into their home only silk flowers, and she had brought into their lives many precious things that were hollow, empty , and would not die.

You’re on my bench again.

 Maybe I want to sit with you.

 You’re joking, grandfather! You, too?

 I mean, just talk.

 I can’t. I’m—working. Oh, all right, just until Raymund comes.

 Who’s Raymund?

 Oh, one of those. This guy I was with last night told me it would be Raymund tonight. Blue car. I hope he’s handsome.

 You don’t know how this Raymund looks?

 No, grandfather. It doesn’t really matter. And it’s none of your business. Why are you laughing?

 Because you’re right. I’m not in this business. Why are you laughing?

 I was thinking how you would look if you were in this business.

 I’d probably need a lot of make-up so my wrinkles will not show.

 I don’t like make-up myself.

 You’re pretty enough without it.

 Make-up makes me feel I need to hide my face.

 You don’t need to. What’s your name?

 Anna. But I want to be called Mitzie. It tells you right away what I am. And what I’m doing here. What about you, grandfather, what are you doing here? You should be home with the family.

I don’t have any.

Neither do I.

I mean I had, but not anymore.

Your wife is dead?

Out of the country. She wrote to say she’ leaving me.

Oh. And she took the children with her.

My daughters are dead.

You don’t look sad.

They died a long time ago. What about you? You look sad almost all the time.

I’m smiling, can’t you see?

I mean on those nights when you’re sitting here alone.

How do you know?

I told you, I live nearby. I watch you when you’re here.

Really? Why?

You look so alone. And I’m all by myself. We may as well be together.

That’s nice. Hey—there’ s the blue car. I must go. You are?


That’s cute. Mandy. Goodnight, Mandy!

Old acacia or old street lamps there was not quibbling: Menandro, like his late grandfather Josephus Conroy, would always find the lamps more charming. The trees were ancient, important. They lofted canopies busy with birds from a wide green island between the two parallel avenues which made up the boulevard—Avenida Santa Catalina, named after the city’s patroness and given over to northbound vehicles that shook the panes and china of the fourteen stately residences along its cracked asphalt; and the promenade, Alfonso XIII, honoring a Spanish royal, reputedly syphilitic, with its concrete walk and concrete benches and concrete seawall. Trees made of streets avenues. That didn’t take much effort. The lamps, stiff-backed Josephus Conroy used to say, made romance of the boulevard. Equidistant from each other the old street lamps began their file beside the graffitied kiosk at the boulevard’s southern margin where the bedraggled shanties of Baybayon huddled and ended abruptly at the juncture where the grassy island vanished, the two avenues converged , and Calle Real surged in to sweep all traffic down a wide crescent toward the pier. It was long, neat row Menandro could not tire of contemplating. Between the trees the corollas of black wrought-iron and frosted glass arched up in clusters of five from slender white columns that involved the flutes and scrollwork and acanthus leaves of classic orders with the flora of impassioned sculpting. Very charming, the cousins from Madrid had enthused as they posed by the street lamps . A handsome young Menandro had posed there in his first white sharkskins. A solemn Menandro and a wan Pilaroca had posed there, she in the lace-daintied bodice and black-ribboned cameo that would become integral to her grooming.

The pictures still stood on the console, along with several of the girls’ snapshots taken in Singapore and Seattle and Vienna and Hong Kong and all over Madrid with the cousins. Grief would soon tire of haunting them, Menandro and Pilaroca agreed, if they confronted the girls’ mute laughter right there , day after painful day. It didn’t. The boulevard remembered them so well and tossed Katrina’s laugh and Bettina’s playful giggles back into the house like handkerchiefs left on the grassy island as they skipped home when the Angelus bells began and the old street lamps bloomed. Josephus Conroy, tweaking his silver mustache, used to say there was nothing like this boulevard in Kansas. He would have been dismayed , as Menandro was, to learn how the city council men, having resolved to rename Alfonso XIII after a more respectable character, were proposing to replace as well the old street lamps with those modern sodium balls that emitted a garish light and turned human complexion ashen.

Menandro aimed his binoculars a bit to the left. He made out a tangle of arms and bodies pushed tight against a tree trunk, quite dim from his window but, he guessed, in full view of Soledad Santileces if she swept out now, in her customary housedress and scapular, into her ornate balcony to despise, one more time before slumber, what the inconsiderate public had done to her childhood playground.

The new girl Mitzie stepped across the street. Her heels tip-tapped like a heartbeat of a wall clock. She sat on her bench, hugged the furry bag and crossed her legs primly. The glow of the street lamps gathered about her like a favored shawl. Tonight she wore pink of a shade Pilaroca would call cheap, the neckline scooped to a depth Pilaroca would call lascivious. Pilaroca seldom found any color or fashion as dignified as her white dresses with sleeves down to the elbows and voluminous collars that buttoned, tied, zipped up to the chin, there to be adorned by her black-ribboned cameo. Ursulina asked her once, over an afternoon demitasse, if she had wanted to be a nun. She was a lady, Pilaroca had retorted, and a lady dressed like one. She was implacable in other matters: shoes will track soil into the house, the laundry must never be hung on the line close to the back wall where the detestable Fulgencio Masangkay could stand on his kitchen sink and read the very labels on her underthings, sex was a bedroom activity and only in the dead of the night.

A red car slid up a curb, slowed down. The new girl Mitzie lifted a limp hand and gave a mirthless smile. She stood up and went to the car. A door opened. She slid in. The car moved away.

Menandro turned from the window. He put the binoculars down on the console. Another stranger, he thought, another mongrel bastard about to maul her breasts, he thighs, her pampered flesh between, while she caressed the bastard’s back and took his tongue into her mouth and squirmed and moaned in pretended pleasure—or did she, in fact, find pleasure in these violations that he, being a man, wouldn’t understand? Menandro shut his eyes. She probably did. You can never tell with women, they were capable of moods and monthly disorders, after all. He flinched. The talon scratched at his ribcage. He stumbled into bed, pressed a pillow against his chest. Go away, damn it! Go away, go away, he moaned until the talon subsided and there was only laughter ringing form the boulevard and Pilaroca’s stern calls, come home now, Katkat, Bettina, come!

Why did she leave you, Mandy?

She thinks I’ve been sleeping with the maid.

Have you?


Then why would she think that?

She came home one night and saw the maid coming out of your room. It was after midnight.

What was the maid doing there?

I came out of the bathroom and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I had to call someone. My wife was at a party.

That’s nice. She goes to parties without you.

Women’s Club things. She’s always at one charity or something. She used to prefer staying home. And then the girls died.

What of?

They were flight attendants.

Oh, plane crash.

Two plane crashes.

I’m sorry. You miss them.

Sometimes. I feel I should have told them to become something else. And Bettina—I should have held on to Bettina.

Beautiful name.

Lovely girl. She was my pet. Katrina was my wife’s favorite. I think my wife has never forgiven me. And now she has found an excuse to leave. I should have been stronger about decisions.

Don’t blame yourself.

Who else, Mitzie?

I mean it’s not necessary, this having to put the blame on anyone. The girls would have died anyway. We live, we die. God decides when. You can blame Him, if you dare.

Menandro snapped the lid back on the cigar box. Damn if he cared what else was in her letter. Damn if he would bother to pack and crate and ship her stuff. She can come and pick it up, haul it off herself. He snatched the box and hurled it at the mirror. He missed. The box cracked on the wall, Pilaroca’s letter sailed down to join the splinters. Menandro slumped on a chair and chuckled. He wondered if Teresing and Ursulina and Fulgencio Masangkay heard the noise and , if they did, grew alarmed at what he might be doing to his supper.

He felt hungry. He went into the kitchen, opened the cupboards and cabinets where he must have hidden his bottle of scotch after Dr Valde threatened to throw it out himself. The sardines! He hated those sardines, the whole stack of them, round tins and square, and the bottled ones, too, red labels, yellow labels, green labels anchovies and tuna and milkfish and probably shark. Pilaroca had carted an entire box home so he’d keep his arthritic hands off the pork. He pushed some tins aside and found the bottle. It gleamed like a jewel. He took it down, unscrewed the cap and poured down his gullet. Dr Valde was wrong. Scotch was bliss.

You really like this bench, don’t you, Mandy?

I like them all.

This one’s another home to me.

Where’s the real one?

It’s just a room. Where’s yours?

Over there. It doesn’t matter. It’s just many rooms.

I’m not telling you where mine is either. No one’s allowed in my room. This is where I make myself available. Did you know this is the only bench close to a street lamp? When I sit here the light fills me up and I feel good. That’s why I chose it.

I can sit over there, but we’d have to shout at each other.

No, Mandy, let’s not. I’ll think you were angry. I don’t feel good if I know someone’s angry with me.

You must be glad you’re not me.

Yes, or else I’d be sitting here with myself.

It’s late. I didn’t think you’d still be working.

I’ll just sit here for a while.

You want to be alone?

You want to go—just go. I’m used to people leaving me. I’ve seen more backs than fronts in my life, and me being what I am, I think that’s funny.

Not to me.

You’re right, Mandy. Nothing seems funny anymore.

One of these days I’m going to do the leaving. That should be funny.

To whom? You don’t have anyone to leave now.

All of them, Mitzie. All of them in those houses there.

Why would they care?

They’re supposed to be friends. Friends care.

That’s what I thought. No, I’m better off without that complication. They take what they want, I give what I can. Simple.


That’s the part I can handle.

Menandro drank his scotch on the porch. A ten-wheeler rumbled by, and elderly couple walked on the promenade arguing with a persistent sweepstakes ticket vendor. He started to doze. The roar of passing motorcycles woke him up. The street lamps were glowing.

Early to work, Mitzie?

Early to play?

What’s the occasion?

Nothing. I cleaned my room. Come and sit down. I brought supper.


It’s only cheese inside. That’s all I had. We’ll have to share the apple. I kept the other one for tomorrow.

Go ahead and eat. You need it. You’re too thin.

You’ve been drinking again. I can smell it.

Don’t tell my doctor. He’ll kill me.

The drinking will kill you first. Here, take this.

Do you always feed strangers?

Just the hungry ones. Birds, too, except they’re all asleep by the time I get here. I suppose that madwoman Lucilla feeds them anyway. I used to have many pets. I no longer keep any. They want you whole life. I only have moments to give. I’m going away.


Soon. If you come tomorrow I’ll be here to say goodbye.

Don’t you like it here?

I do. It’s beautiful, this boulevard. Makes you forget a lot.

Makes you remember, too.

I’m beginning to feel like I’m sitting in someone else’s garden.

Mine. You’re welcome here, Mitzie.

What am I to you?

A woman. Friend.

I’ll remember that.

Where will you go?

Where I’ll feel more like belonging. I don’t know.

I think I’ll miss you, Mitzie.

Thank you, Mandy. Just don’t say it again.

He stuffed the soiled clothes and underthings into urns and bowls and boxes, jars and the silver mugs. When he had done with the hamper he gathered the photographs from the console and dumped them into the enormous clay planter, along with the sardines. He wiped the sweat from his face and left the handkerchief inside the chalice. The jewel box with the cloissone lid he took with him. He switched off all the lamps, closed the door and walked into the boulevard.

What is that?

A jewel box, miss.

I don’t have jewels to put in it!

An apple, then. Two apples. It’s big enough.

What’s that on the cover? Is it gold?


Is this thing antique?

No, but it’s old. No one seems to have needed it. It has always been empty. A bit like life. I want you to have it.

Grandfather, you don’t have to give me anything if you want me.

I haven’t thought of that.

Maybe I have.

That’s kind of you.

Maybe just this once I want someone to take me as a woman and not as a whore.

Her lips tasted of apples, musky and luscious, the fruit of ancient biblical horror and fairy tales, the sweetness on which childhood fed for manhood to acquire wisdom and greed and so become acceptable. Menandro stroked her hair. His blood raced, he felt a new and furious hunger. He closed his eyes and sought her tongue. She gave it to him as she unbuttoned his shirt and tugged at his belt and opened him up to her sorcery. Her hands burned on his chest, his belly, on his throat and down his chest to his navel and up again, to his shoulders and chest and belly, prodding, kneading, searing his guts, igniting him to a generous largeness her hands triumphantly took possession of. Menandro shivered. His eyes flew open as great wings heaved inside his bowels. The night had a shrill silence. The street lamps flared brighter. He couldn’t see beyond the fierce light. He smiled and wondered what they would see if they came to their windows, Teresing below her gables and Ursulina rising from her litany and Minggoy beckoning Linetter from her piano and Soledad Santileces gasping into her scapular and Carlitos and Concha fleeing the tinkling gin tonics on their terrace, what they would think, the cousins in Madrid and in their startled midst the lave-gowned Pilaroca and in his oval frame Josephus Conroy tweaking his white mustache. Menandro laughed to see their incredulity as the new girl sighed his name and took him into her mouth and the great wings shrieked upward into his chest, filling him up, engorging him with a terrible rapture. He laughed as the boulevard rose and spun and the old street lamps exploded into blinding light and the great talons sank into his heart and ripped, and he laughed to see the astonishment on all their faces as they discovered he had died.

Bobby Flores Villasis was born in Bayawan, Negros Oriental in 1946. He spent some of his childhood years in Iloilo City, but established residence in Dumaguete City by 1960. He studied at St. Paul’s College Dumaguete [now St. Paul University Dumaguete] where he earned his AB degree in English. In college, he began writing under the mentorship of Edilberto Tiempo, Edith Tiempo, and Albert Faurot. He was a fellow to both the Silliman University National Writers Workshop and the University of the Philippines National Writers Workshop, where his manuscript entitled “Storm Signals” won the prize for best fiction in 1974. He has also received multiple Palanca awards for his plays and ficton, and has also citations from Focus Magazine and the Philippines Free Press. His books include Demigod and Other Selections [1998] and Suite Bergamasque: The Boulevard Stories [2001], and co-edited Kabilin: Legacies of a Hundred Years of Negros Oriental [1993] with Merlie Alunan.



When Carlos’ mother decided to take him to Dumaguete, on the other side of the island, he didn’t question her. One day she said, we have to go, and they did, walking with their overnight bags to the bus station, whose uneven ground was pooled with muddy brown water in which he could detect shapes darting, tiny black minnows. He stumbled once or twice but his mother never paused or looked behind her and he hurried to catch up.

He wondered why she hadn’t asked the driver to take them. Nanding had returned home after dropping off Carlos’ father at the office. But his mother had had the security guard call them a cab. The cab driver had stared at his mother as they got into the back. Carlos wanted to hit him.

His mother had dressed carefully for the trip. She was wearing one of her floaty dresses, and high-heeled white sandals, the better to show off her toes, which were long and thin and elegant and nothing like Carlos’, who in almost everything had taken after his father.

We are going to the Seven Seas Resort, his mother said. You will like it. They have a pool. And Carlos did like it, but that was only after he had retched twice during the twelve-hour bus ride along a twisty narrow road that hugged the sides of the steep mountain. Whenever Carlos looked out the window, he saw terrifying views of deep, wooded gorges and, sometimes, the glint of flashing water. After he retched, the sour vomit smell clogged his mouth, his nostrils, and Carlos was deeply embarrassed.

None of the other passengers seemed to mind. The old woman behind them even leaned forward and handed his mother a couple of plastic bags.

The town itself was small and not at all like what he’d expected. He noticed there were no signal lights and everyone rode around on motorbikes or tricycles. These contraptions roamed all over the City and made a terrific belching noise. Smoke poured from their exhaust pipes, marring the fresh air that blew in from the ocean.

One day they visited a crocodile farm. Carlos was intrigued by the scaly creatures whose mouths opened astonishingly wide at their approach, as though manipulated by invisible hinges.

Another day they visited a large zoo near the central plaza. His mother walked around silently, apparently content, her eyes resting briefly on the animals in their cages, one said to be the tamaraw, a near-mythical horned beast that looked, to Carlos, like nothing so much as a very small water buffalo, with a black hide and two stout, curving horns.

On the fourth day, Carlos felt his insides contract. His mother had taken him to the green campus of Silliman University, and there, among the tall old acacia trees, they’d stumbled across a small museum that held shells and various voodoo paraphernalia from the small island just offshore, Siquijor. From the city’s seaside promenade, one could just discern the faint outline of this island. All day, outriggers plied the distance between the large and small island, ferrying shell vendors and curious tourists to and fro. Carlos had heard numerous stories of this fabled place, but his mother showed no inclination to go there.

Back home, his yaya, Dulce, had told him about witches, about the manunungod who hides under the floor in the room of a sick person, causing the patient to toss and turn feverishly. She had told him about aswang, creatures with long tongues which they use to suck out the baby from a pregnant woman’s stomach.

Dulce slept on a straw mat on the floor of his room. She only told him these stories when it was late and she was sure Carlos’ father was asleep. Looking at the blackened implements, he was suddenly reminded of the yaya and of her strangely urgent whisperings. And almost at the same instant, a picture of his room rose up in his memory: the toy cars neatly arranged on the shelves, the blue bedspread with the red trim. Ma, he said, quite without thinking, I miss da.

Shush, his mother said. Stop being such a baby.

Will I ever see him again, Carlos asked, and to his horror tears began to well up in his eyes, though just a little.

Of course you will, his mother said, patting his back. Her hand was cool. He could feel the imprint of coolness on the back of his t-shirt. It felt good.

Of course you will, his mother said again, looking intently into his eyes. And Carlos was once again caught in that gaze, that green-eyed gaze that seemed to speak of nothing so much as time and sadness. He didn’t know why his mother should have the green eyes, when all his classmates’ mothers had brown; why she didn’t seem to love his father and threatened to leave him after every argument.

This was the first time she had actually taken him with her, though. Carlos had expected they would catch the next flight to Manila, where his grandparents lived. But instead his mother had taken him to this strange city where they knew no one.

On the fifth or sixth day, a change seemed to come over his mother. Alert as he was to her ever-shifting moods, he sensed the change in her almost immediately. She seemed distracted, found excuses to leave him and go to the hotel lobby. Once, when he was swimming in the pool, he looked up and she was no longer in the deck chair that she’d dragged over to the shallow end, where he could look up from time to time and watch her reading her book (A Journey of One Hundred Years—what kind of title was that? It was no book he would ever want to read.). When his mother was reading, two deep lines appeared on either side of her mouth, and she didn’t look pretty anymore. For that reason, Carlos tried to call out to her and distract her, splashing energetically and making sure a few drops of water landed on her still form.

Now, when he looked up, she was gone. He felt a familiar panic rising in him. He thought she had left the hotel, might even have left the city, and now Carlos was sure he was all alone, and must get his things and find his way back to his father, who lived all the way on the other side of the island, by himself.

A group of men had come to stay at the hotel. They’d arrived two days before. They were large, stout men with leathery skin and loud voices. They made the waitresses in the restaurant bring tray after tray of beer. They sat hunched over the table, telling stories about women and laughing.

It was the thought of these recent visitors that made Carlos finally get out of the pool, almost tripping over his towel in his haste. He noticed his mother had left her book, face down, on the ground beside the deck chair. One of the stout men who had arrived a few nights ago was sunning himself on a towel, some distance away. Carlos couldn’t be sure but he felt that the man had been watching him. This angered him and he tried to stare the man down, which was difficult since the man was wearing shades that reflected a deep bronze sheen.

Carlos picked up his mother’s book—he felt sure that the man would paw through it otherwise—and hurried to the cottage he and his mother shared, set some way back from the pool. He stepped on the veranda and noticed that his mother’s slippers were gone. He opened the door to their room—by this time everything was swimming painfully in his head and he had a headache—and a whoosh of cold air from the air conditioner disconcerted him. The room was frigid. The beds were as they had been when he and his mother had left that morning, bringing their towels and their sunblock and her book. He went to the bathroom and saw her toiletries — brush, perfume bottle, lipstick — arranged neatly on the right side of the vanity. His mother had been laughing that morning, she had been happy. But Carlos had not returned her gaiety. He had remained silent in response to all her jibing.

He flipped open the light and in the harsh fluorescent glare saw himself in the mirror. Who was this stranger peering back at him with the frightened expression. It was certainly not he, for he always felt he knew how to hide his emotions. It was a skill his mother lacked, and he had realized this about her very early. And he had carefully tended to his face, even when he was startled, even when he felt lost.

Now, however, the mirror made him call out.

Ma, he said. And then, more strongly, Ma!

He was aware that his mother could not hear him, that she was far away somewhere, and he realized, with frightening clarity, that he was nothing but a child. He had loved it when, on his ninth birthday, almost a year ago, his father had surprised him with a party. It had been wonderful, for his mother wore a white dress and clung to his father’s arm and they had talked to each other in loving tones.

After, his mother had gone away for a much longer time than usual. Because of the party, Carlos felt her absence much more keenly this time. Yet he had no one, not even a younger sister, with whom he could share his grief, his terror. It has always been like this. Whenever his mother disappeared mysteriously from his life, as she had been doing more and more often in the past year, Carlos felt adrift. The reality of school, his friends, his father were no consolation for his loss.

His father would sneer hatefully at him. Grow up! He would say to Carlos. Your mother is not coming back.

Then the days would pass in a long string of waiting.

Carlos’ father was named Oscar. When Carlos’s mother was away, another woman would come by the house. She had a rich, throaty laugh and wore colorful, high-heeled shoes that matched whatever dress she happened to be wearing.

Once, when this woman had bent to hug Carlos, he smelled his mother’s perfume. The perfume his father had brought from Paris after a business trip, that had made his mother clap her hands and cry out with happiness.

The other woman’s name, he found out from listening to his father, was Rica. Carlos observed how his father’s voice would drop when he uttered Rica’ name. Rica had children, too, but her husband, Carlos learned from his yaya, who seemed angry at the woman and angrier even at Carlos’ father, had moved to the States and was already living with another woman there, even before the marriage had been officially annulled. The sad thing was that he had taken Rica’s two young boys with him. Now she had no one—no one, that is, except for Oscar, Carlos’s father.

“Your father is a prince,” Rica had told Carlos once. And for a brief moment Carlos’ narrow chest had swelled with pride. But, with his very next breath, he was conscious of somehow having betrayed his mother. In response to Rica’ remark, Carlos had merely shrugged his shoulders. Rica had gazed at him with a strange look. Then she had laughed and walked away.

Carlos often daydreamed of ways to chase Rica away from his father. He had come very close to writing her a note, to telling her that she must follow her husband, but he feared provoking his father’s wrath. Instead he waited silently, begging, pleading with his mother in his thoughts. And, each time, it seemed that his mother did hear him, because from whatever city she happened to be in, Carlos’ mother would return. He would come down to breakfast one day and see her sitting demurely at the table, her hair damp and smelling clean and fresh, as if she had lingered among flowers. It was only then, at the moment of her return, that Carlos knew his heart had been broken. The pain was so real that he found it impossible to eat. It was as if his mother and father had each taken long knives and plunged them into his very being. He, the fulcrum of these two opposing forces, could scarcely move or think and wanted only to die from exhaustion, the exhaustion of loving two people who felt only bitterness toward each other.

Carlos would often ask himself why his mother and father could not be happy. Or even pretend to be happy, for his sake. In his dreams Rica would assume the shape of a fantastic plumed bird. In her outstretched wings she cradled Carlos’ father’s sleeping form. Other times he would dream of his mother, or at least of a being he felt to be his mother, though this woman was stooped and had white hair. In his dreams, his fragile old mother moved about restlessly, tapping the floors with a wooden cane and then bending low as if listening for a sound from under the floorboards. Once she lifted it and hit a boy lurking in the shadows. Carlos cried out and felt pain shoot up his right arm. When he woke in the morning, the inside of his right elbow was bruised. Perhaps, he mused, he was a shape-shifter, who visited others in his dreams.

The only thing that made Carlos feel better, after having had such a dream, was the voice of Olivia, his yaya. He didn’t know how old Olivia was, but she was very old. She had come to the family with Carlos’ mother. When Carlos’ mother was not around, it was Olivia who talked to him, and told him stories at night, and made sure he ate his dinner. Sometimes Olivia looked at him and shook her head sadly. Then Carlos wondered what he had done. He dreamed of his mother, always.

Once his mother told him she had been to Costa Rica. Such anguish he had felt at this knowledge, at the wounding thought that his mother had boarded a plane, that she had flown many thousands of miles away from him (without a second thought).

His mother had looked at him expectantly, and after a few moments he realized she was waiting for him to ask a question, and he finally asked her what she had enjoyed most (when all the while he needed all the force of his will to tamp down his anger) and she had said, “the birds.”

She then talked about the scenery, and how long it had taken to get to this beach and that, and how she was finally able to practice her Spanish, which had grown rusty from disuse. She described the friendliness of the people, and their lustrous eyes and brown skin. The food, too, she had fallen in love with—the callo pinto—rice and black beans–with every meal; the fat juicy watermelons, the papayas, the piña, the fried plantains; the grilled chicken; the picadillo de chayote with cilantro; and her inn, which was on some street whose name she couldn’t remember but which was 150 meters behind the Ministry of Tourism. His mother said she loved the way everone would say, “No te preoccupe,” which was now her favorite expression.

And, while his mother was describing all these things for him—she had no pictures, she never took a camera anywhere—Carlos too began to see in his mind the beautiful clean country and the smiling unworried people. He thought it must be like paradise, where he expected to go one day, and even though some part of him knew that his mother could not be trusted, that some of what she was telling him was not absolute reality, he understood why she had chosen to leave out details here and there. The world was a messy place that his mother wanted no part of. But here, with Carlos, she had invented an idea of a place where it was possible to be perfectly happy. This invention would always be their secret, a gift she shared only with Carlos.

He did not ask her whether she had told anyone that she was married and had a son. He guessed that his mother might not want to offer this information, not willingly. And anyway she was over there, where no one knew her and where she must have felt she could start afresh. It was cruel, then, of him to have called her back, though he had had to do it; he simply couldn’t live without her.

Carlos was thinking, remembering all these things as he left the frigid room and headed toward the main building, where the reception desk was. He has to skirt through a grove of coconut trees, and he noticed for the first time that had seen no birds in this place, and he wondered whether it might be possible for him one day to see Costa Rica, his mother’s beautiful paradise, for himself.

His mother didn’t know, and he’d make sure she never knew, that in the last year he had learned how to smoke, filching a cigarette a week from the packs his father left on his dresser. He would take the precious stick to a secluded spot in their garden where, hidden behind a large balete tree, he would light it and practice breathing slowly, in and out, watching the smoke curl luxuriantly in the air above him. Sometimes he would deepen his voice and imitate his father. It made him feel big and proud to walk with his head held high and cocked to one side, the cigarette dangling from a corner of his mouth. Sometimes Carlos imagined it was he who held Rica, he who Rica gazed at with longing. And he could hardly wait until the day when he, too, could buy presents for pretty women and make them laugh.

The men were loud tonight. He could hear them, drinking and talking in the restaurant. The waitresses scurried around with frightened faces. The loudest of the men was puffing on a big cigar. He wore dark glasses, even in the gloom of the restaurant. He had a pistol tucked against his bulging stomach, in the waistband of his tight khaki pants. The others called him “Sir.”

Carlos could feel Sir watching him as he entered the restaurant. Perhaps he’d been watching him a long time already. It was hard to tell, behind the opaque glasses. Carlos skirted his table carefully, but a heavy, dark hand shot out and Carlos, feeling the heavy pressure against his chest, stopped.

Teka muna,” the man said. He was smiling. “I want to ask you something.” Carlos noticed the flash of gold on one of his teeth.

Carlos shook his head. He wanted to pretend he was deaf-mute. He’d done this, sometimes, and sometimes it had worked. Sometimes, when his teachers in school asked him a question he didn’t know how to answer, he’d roll his eyes and stick out his tongue. This made his math teacher, in particular, increasingly angry. Finally the teacher had thrown an eraser at him and told him to get out of the classroom. Carlos had moved slowly among the desks, as if underwater.

Sir kept his paw against Carlos’s thin chest, and suddenly he felt like crying. He turned his head, looking around for his mother, and Sir said, “Where is she?”

Carlos shrugged, wordless.

“You come here by yourself?” Sir asked. “Where is your father?” He pronounced it PA-derrr; it was clear to Carlos that Sir was not an educated man. But this knowledge only increased his unease and he blushed bright red. Then, because he was so good at pantomime, he raised his shoulders and shrugged, miming an I don’t know.

He raised both his palms to the air. A hiccup of fear rose to his throat and before he could stop it, it emerged sounding like a belch. Sir laughed.

“What happened to you, ha, boy? I hear you talking to your mom so I know you’re not deaf or dumb. Maybe just scared, ha? Scared of Mario?”

Carlos mimed again, desperately rolling his eyes and shrugging. Sir stopped laughing and gazed at him through narrowed eyes. He’d tired of the game, Carlos could feel it, but he didn’t know what else to do. He stood there, waiting.

Sir gave him a slight push, and Carlos, off balance, stumbled. Sir laughed, and the other men laughed, too. Carlos’s face was burning. He faced the men.

“My father is coming,” Carlos said. “He is coming.”

But saying these words caused a kind of panic to rise in him. He realized, for the first time, that they really were alone there, he and his mother. And indeed he wondered why they were there at all, in that place so far from home, surrounded by strangers. And he wondered why his father had let them go, why his father was always letting them go, why he was never around at the moment of Carlos’s greatest need. Such as now.

Perhaps it was the woman in the red dress, the one who came over when Carlos’s mother was in Costa Rica. Perhaps she was the cause of his mother’s unhappiness and ruin.

As he walked away, forcing himself to move slowly, Carlos heard Sir saying something to the others. He caught the word puki and the evil in their laughter. His heart was racing by the time he reached their cottage.

He flung open the door. His mother was on the bed, doing a crossword puzzle. She was wearing a loose blue shift, and her hair was tied back from her face in a ponytail. She looked young and fresh and rested. She looked up when he entered and smiled.

“Where were you?” she said, as if she had been sitting there all this time.

Carlos sat on the bed.

“I want to go home,” he said. He meant, I want to go to my father. She knew that was what he meant. Her face grew suddenly cold.

“No, not yet,” she said. After a moment, she said, “Aren’t you having fun here? The food is good, no? I saw you eat so many mangoes this morning.”

“I don’t care about the mangoes!” Carlos screamed.

His mother’s arms encircled him almost immediately, but he would not be comforted. “You. Think. I. Care. About. Mangoes!” he screamed and screamed. Spittle was coming out of his mouth but his mother held him gently. Eventually, his screams subsided to a loud sobbing. After long moments, he became still, listening to her soft voice, going “Shhh, shhh, shhhh. You’re tired, just tired.”

Carlos’s eyes were closed. He lay in her arms, exhausted.

He decided he could not tell her about the men in the restaurant. He would think up some excuse to prevent her from leaving the room. Perhaps he’d say he wasn’t feeling well. He could mimic very well: he’d lie still and listless on the sheet, listening to her voice, low and soothing. He’d even force tears from his eyes, so many that they would stain the front of her dress. He’d find a way to hold her with him, there.

Marianne Villanueva was born in Manila, but has Bacolod roots. A former Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford, she has been writing and publishing stories about the Philippines and Filipino-Americans since the mid-1980s. She is the author of the short story collections Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila [1991], Mayor of the Roses [2005], and The Lost Language [2009]. Her novella, Jenalyn, was a 2014 finalist for the United Kingdom’s Saboteur Award. Her individual stories have been finalists for the O. Henry Literature Prize, nominated for the Pushcart, and included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 (Very) Short Fiction of 2016. She has edited an anthology of Filipino women's writings, Going Home to a Landscape, which was selected as a Notable Book by the prestigious Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize.

Justo and My Father’s Car


In the end, it was the matter of the car. It was not wrecked; it had only been dented in some places and various parts inside had been thrown out of alignment. The problem was not how or where to get it repaired, or even how much it would cost, for then, as now, money was never an object. The problem was how I had gotten it into that odd position to begin with. To my father, it was enough. He decided, after a long string of last chances (the last being my successful orchestration, as Soiree Committee Chairman, of that year’s Senior Soiree) that I was irresponsible and a delinquent, and decreed that I would attend college not in Manila, or Cebu, or even Iloilo, but in Bacolod, where he could keep me under his thumb. I’d been lobbying for his blessing to escape his clutches for the better part of two years, but after that night, he was unswayable.

It wasn’t even I who screwed up the car, even if I had parked it too close to the edge. There were five of us in it that night, my current sweetheart included, where there should have been just two, and Justo, who came in his own car, made the mistake of slamming the back door after he rescued Tina, the other female passenger that night. If I was to blame, so were the others. Most of all Justo.

But even now, decades after the fact, this suggestion seems even more implausible than on that morning when I stared at the front end of a Mercedes Benz poking up from beyond an embankment that plunged down to the Bacolod Strait as the sun rose over a gleaming chrome front bumper. That morning, as my father stood around making rueful noises along with the other parents huddled in the cogon and barking suggestions to the soldiers who had come to pull the Benz up, but instead were looking at it in goggle-eyed amusement, I was fighting off first desperation, then despair, by racking my brain for loopholes, ways that I could shift the blame to someone else, anyone, away from me, and leave me spotless, basking in the glory befitting the Committee Chairman of a Soiree that had been, if not completely successful, a lot of fun. But he looked at me once that morning, just once, with utter contempt and disappointment, and I knew that it was over for me. From then on he never held back, expressing his displeasure over any choice I made, whether it affected him, as when I apportioned some of our sugar land to corn-planting, or not, as when I bought my first brand-new car. It was with great reluctance that he turned over the reins of the farm to me, and even then it would be years before he finally stopped meddling in its operations, content to grumble in the background if the returns were below standards (his, of course) and to dispense favors in between games of golf to the older obreros who would, while he was alive, continue to regard him as the Señor. Even after he died I continued to be Señorito.

To this day I wonder if things would have been different if I had opted to borrow my mother’s functional, roomy VW van instead of my father’s sedan. Or if I had simply doubled with Dondi and Tina as we had planned.

As far as anyone could remember, there had been only two instances when the Senior Soiree was held in February, and these were the two years after the high school department of St. Martin’s School for Boys was established. The Seniors of the following year prevailed, and from then on the Soiree was held in January, when everyone was still prosperous from the Christmas crop of cash gifts. By February all that money would have been spent in other ways and on other parties, and that month, with its connotations of red valentines and puppy love, was unacceptably trite.

As a matter of tradition, the Seniors looked forward to the Soiree more than the Prom or the Graduation Ball because these two were official school functions. The Soiree, on the other hand, was held off-campus at the Rolling Hills Village Clubhouse and organized entirely by the students. This was the most controversial aspect of the affair, because that meant that although we had come together as the boys of St. Martin’s, the school had nothing to do with the event. The funds were taken from a pot that made monthly rounds among the Seniors from June to December. The only chaperones at the Soiree would be a handful of cooperative uncles or older cousins, who usually repaired to the Clubhouse bar after dinner anyway. In all the years that the Soiree was held, there had never been any trouble—the Seniors understood that the affair’s reputation and future rested in their hands, and behaved.

Over the years, the process of finding escorts for the Soiree and other formal functions had evolved into an efficient procedure. As a matter of tradition, St. Martin’s boys paired up with girls from Our Lady of Peace, which was the only girls’ school in Bacolod on the same level as St. Martin’s. Boys who were going steady had no problem, but the unattached would have to prevail upon a matchmaker, of which each year level at Our Lady had at least one, usually a plain but well-connected girl through her own plain but well-connected boyfriend. Together, they exuded the well-meaning solicitousness of a married couple who wanted nothing more than to marry off their unfortunate single friends. In my experience, the girl usually reminded me of nothing more than a brothel madam as she went over a list of prospects: “She’s perfect for you. No? Well, true. But this one—she is a great girl.” The transaction was usually carried out at an ice cream parlor, with the boy footing the bill, over class photos or a yearbook.

The year I turned Senior I was secure in the knowledge that I had a ready date for the Soiree—Lizette and I had been going steady since the schoolyear began. I had carried out the courtship for most of the summer, and she had accepted me after the first week of classes. It was a given that I would attend the Soiree with Lizette, and as early as November when the Soiree Committee was formed she began making joint plans for us, without so much as any mention of the event from me. The first thing she asked me was if I would drive the car myself or get a chauffeur, reasoning that she had to know even then because her choice of gown depended to a great deal on whether she would be alighting from the front or the back seat of an automobile. Caught off-guard by the ease and simplicity with which we had slipped into thinking of ourselves as “a pair,” I was oddly pleased by her presumptuousness.

Our arrival at the Clubhouse that evening was something of an anticlimax—just three hours before, Lizette and I had been fussing over the evening’s details, skulking in the kitchen, hovering over the table settings, and fretting at the combo’s late arrival. We raced home as the sky began to turn pink, and after half an hour I was at her house, where I naturally had to wait more than twice that amount of time for her. Despite our going “steady,” I always found waiting at her home uncomfortable. Her parents seemed a touch too solicitous of me, treating me with deference when social roles prescribed that I was to be the fawning, respectful one. Her house was modest but not shabby, and in it I could never shake the feeling that I was a prized catch, not to be allowed to escape at any cost. True, Lizette’s parents were not rich, but her father made enough working at a bank to keep them comfortable and ensure that Lizette got the best of everything. Nevertheless, they laughed too easily at my witticisms and were always a little too attentive to me.

But I endured it, because it was the Soiree—your date waited at home in her evening gown and you came to pick her up, driving a car (for in those days, as now, it was child’s play to acquire a driver’s license before attaining legal age), and she kept you waiting while you made small talk with her parents and when she finally came downstairs there was the business of the corsage, and the instructions from her father, and then you got in the car, both of you in the front seats, and rolled up to the Clubhouse amid a sea of glowing taillights and glinting fins and surrendered your car to the valets before making your grand entrance through the lattice doorway. It was a grand, old-fashioned night, no matter if no one slow-danced anymore and the music was rock ‘n’ roll rather than romantic. The point was it was a fantasy, and in those days we were young enough to believe in the fantasy.

By the time Lizette emerged from her bedroom, assisted by her mother, I was ready to scream, but my exasperation with her father disappeared when I caught sight of her. We posed for photos with her parents and then were finally, mercifully, off.

At the clubhouse entrance, we paused to inspect ourselves and smooth away traces of the car ride, and I admired Lizette’s foresight—upon alighting from the car she only had to give her fluffy skirt a single brisk shake for it to fall into place. Anticlimax or not, I felt a rush of pride upon entering the ballroom, where all the colored lights had been lit, the candles laid out on tables, and seeing that it was somehow no longer the place where three hours ago we had been running from one end to the other in a self-important panic, that it had undergone a transformation, just as we had once we had washed the day’s dust and sweat away.

The ballroom was not even half full yet. While Lizette beamed and waved at her classmates who had arrived before us and were already seated at tables with their St. Martin’s counterparts, my gaze settled upon the various components of the evening, inspecting each in turn for anything amiss. The waiters were serving drinks and hors d’oeuvres at tables and filling water glasses, since dinner would not start until I gave the signal. The combo we had contracted for the evening was dressed in matching green suits and were drinking punch beside the stage, since they were not to start playing until eight-thirty. Their instruments had been set up on the stage in front of the sequined cardboard letters that spelled “The Soiree” in elegant flowing script. In the meantime, Felix was playing records in the far corner—he was stag tonight, as usual, disdaining the stuck-up formality of events like the Soiree but not one to miss the big night either. I was sure he had a bottle of something nice and strong with him—I caught his eye and grinned at him, ensuring that I would have a sip or two once my duties for the evening were done. It seemed that the instructions we had been issuing all afternoon had been followed by the clubhouse staff, and that made me rest a little easier. I felt sure there would be nothing but good news for my father tomorrow morning, and concerning the matter of my choice of college, he would be putty in my hands.

I naturally wanted to study in Manila. All the best universities were in Manila, and there one could acquire an ineffable air of urbanity and worldliness that came with having lived elsewhere, anywhere other than just Bacolod. We owned a house in Quezon City that we lived in whenever we went to Manila for a vacation. Often it stood empty save for an elderly couple that my father had transplanted from Bacolod to act as the house’s caretakers.

However, we had no close relatives in Manila—perhaps a more responsible cousin or two who was also studying there—and hence there would be no responsible adults to look after me while I was there. Hence my father’s hesitation. I began socializing at eleven, accompanying older cousins to parties and the like. By the time I was thirteen I knew how to smoke and had developed a taste for cognac. None of this escaped my father’s attention, including my frequent disciplinary transgressions at St. Martin’s. On the matter of my academic records, though, he could not say a word—I was never an honor student, but I wasn’t a laggard either—except to remark that while my marks were good, they could have been better.

I imagine my father entertained disturbing visions of me running wild in Manila, acquiring all the bad habits I had failed to in the last seven years of my acquaintance with the night and spending all of his money on the pursuit of pleasure with nothing to show for it but merely acceptable marks. I don’t think he ever considered the idea of me studying in Manila at all, except during the months when I threw myself into my role as Soiree Committee Chairman. I knew I was capable of being responsible and trustworthy, of achieving something important and worthwhile. Although I had given up on the yearbook staff upon realizing that there was a qualification exam, I knew that the socialization that my father so frowned upon would be put to excellent use in organizing the event of the year. As I led Lizette to the table reserved for the organizers, nearest to the stage, I did so with the air of a triumphant emperor entering the conquered city.

I nodded to Dondi and Tina, who were sitting with us at the table, as we sat down. Lizette and Tina immediately dove into a huddle. Although she had never been close to Tina, Lizette had formed a bond with her ever since we started going steady, only becoming friends since Dondi and I were, and continue to be, as close as brothers. Dondi leaned over the table to murmur about some detail or other; I was only half-listening. At most social events, I have found, much of the small talk is inconsequential—it exists to give whoever may be observing the impression that one has, at the very least, acquaintances at the function. It also diverts attention from your rapt observation of the others in the crowd. I murmured back the usual reply at him: “Oh really?” and scanned the room, searching for an opportunity to perform my official duties of the evening. There was none.

By seven-forty, when most of the couples had arrived, I called over the head waiter and told him that his crew could begin serving dinner. At eight-thirty the combo began to play as scheduled. Everyone made a show of listening, applauding, and murmuring to each other about the musicians. Having chosen that band with great care, I was confident that no one had anything to complain about. Still, the dance area remained conspicuously empty.

Up to that point I didn’t notice that Justo was absent—not until he made his entrance two hours later. I knew who had RSVPd for dinner, but even when I was drawing up the seating arrangements I found his absence unremarkable. Justo was the sort of fellow that you didn’t notice much. He excelled at nothing, not even in delinquency or buffoonery; nor was he so poor at anything as to elicit comment. He didn’t come from a distinguished or wealthy family; nor was he so poverty-stricken as to be one of the charity cases that St. Martin’s relegates to “scholar” status. He was not at the absolute periphery of the social world of St. Martin’s, but in that sizeable gray area between outcast and popular. If not for that night he would have been doomed to suffer today the anonymity of the unfortunate whom I do not recognize or remember in our yearbook. But Justo had chosen that evening to emerge from the haze in the fringes of class photos, from the dim corners of school corridors, from the backs of classrooms. He was about to be noticed, whether by his design or not I still don’t know, and my life, as a result, would never be the same again.

At our table, we all glanced round at each other. Dondi took the initiative and led Tina to dance, and the rest of us at the table followed. We lasted one song and retreated when we realized that no one else was dancing. Then Lizette took Tina’s hand, and together they made the rounds of the tables, asking everyone to dance lest the Soiree be decreed a failure. I relaxed in my chair and watched Lizette taking charge of the matter. Again, this had taken no prompting on my part, and it pleased me.

As the evening went on the bursts of dancing became less and less sporadic. By the time the combo took a fifteen-minute break at ten, no one was seated. This was my cue to fill the gap with a little speech—the Committee Chairman’s privilege.

I must emphasize that it had been going very well up to this point. If the events that evening had proceeded according to their trend, who knows what or where I could be right now? As it happened, my life was altered. It was partly my fault. I see that now.

As I paused before the microphone to scan the expectant faces, rendered pale and featureless by the spotlight shining in my eyes, I saw the door to the ballroom swing open to admit what looked like, to my consternation, a beyond-fashionably-late couple. I lifted a hand to shade my eyes to confirm my impression, and naturally all the expectant faces turned away from me, in the direction of my gaze, to Justo, who had arrived—surprise enough for us—with a date.

I was too stunned to do anything else, and the list of key points I had drawn up to cover in my speech fled my mind. I stared, along with everyone else in the ballroom. A hubbub had erupted in recognition of Justo, but died as they walked among the tables in search of a seat. They seemed not the least bit embarrassed by the attention, which would have been proper, but returned everyone’s gaze in a manner that could be called brazen.

Justo even wore the appropriate pleasant half-smile, nodding here and there to the few who didn’t turn their heads when he looked their way. It was clear that the girl knew no one in the room—while she looked about with friendliness, she greeted no one, and to me her demeanor bordered on haughtiness.

I believe it must have taken them less than a minute to find unoccupied seats, which happened to be near the dance floor, but that night those moments seemed to take forever. I continued to stand at the microphone, shading my eyes and watching as Justo pulled out a chair for the girl and eased it closer to the table as she sat down. I saw him glance once more about the room as he unbuttoned his jacket and took his own seat, and then he looked straight at me.

It was but natural, as I was supposed to be the center of attention at that moment, yet I remember marveling at his impudence, his presumptuousness, to now graciously direct his own attention to me after taking everyone else’s. I lowered my hand, becoming aware as I did that some of the faces were once again turned towards me and more were following suit.

Lizette told me later that my speech had been wonderful, nice, but it was nowhere near what I had planned to say. Once I regained command of the room I tumbled through the rest of my remarks and stepped down to a polite wave of applause. Even the musicians were taken aback; no doubt they had expected their break to have lasted a bit longer. Not wanting to be a spoilsport, I motioned to Felix to play something to fill the silence. Once I was back in my chair, I felt Lizette’s small cold hand squeeze my arm as she gushed over my speech. I don’t remember a word she said, because I was too busy inspecting Justo’s date.

I had never seen her before. I think no one ever had, before that night. Of course she existed; it would be silly to suggest that Justo had conjured her up for the occasion. What I mean is I had never seen her—not at any of the parties, nor at any of the restaurants or moviehouses that we frequented. Even if she did show up on the odd occasion, I doubt I, or any of my set, would notice her. She was obviously not from Our Lady, but neither was she public school material—while her gown’s color was a shade too loud to be tasteful, it evidently cost a pretty penny. She wore a slim gold chain with a jeweled pendant that I could not make out from where I was sitting, and no other jewelry. Her coiffure had obviously been constructed in a beauty parlor, although she must have had to go to the parlor and then return home with her head wrapped in a scarf, rather than having the stylist service her at home. Her skin was fair, and her eyes were rounded and deep-set, but her nose lacked the narrow, refined mestiza cast and her lips were a tad too full to be elegant. Her long skirt  made any inspection of her legs impossible, which was a shame, because it was much easier to determine class by the absence of insect bite scars and scratches from playing in the streets. No, she was not low-class at first glance, but closer inspection revealed her to be not high-class either. My own guess was Fatima College—the convent school that had been forced to accept boys to maintain their enrollment levels. I would learn later that she was from the Chinese Catholic high school at the edge of the Chinese business district. Its stately grounds and art deco chapel jarred with the boxy rows of wooden stores that lined the two parallel streets of Bacolod’s little Chinatown. Their students were an aggressive, bookish sort, and until that night I had only encountered them at inter-school debates, spelling bees, and other academic contests. While the St. Martin’s boys generally won these competitions, the boys and girls of the Chinese school were the closest competitors around, besides the occasional overachiever from Our Lady.

The girl and Justo would presently scandalize everyone with their carrying on, but even in the interval between my remarks and the combo’s second set, she already raised my eyebrows. She disdained the plate the waiter presented to her, sipping instead from the glass of soda that came with the dinner and helping Justo with his own food—yes, taking her fork and feeding him something off her plate, or sometimes out of her own fingers. Her placing the napkin correctly on her lap did nothing to improve my opinion.

She chatted with Justo, leaning into him, touching his arm, in a manner more befitting the bantering between chums at a soda fountain. She laughed with her whole body—she threw her head back, opened her mouth, and clapped a hand to her chest as if to contain her outburst. The gesture did no good, for her laugh was full, loud, horsy—masculine, almost—and entirely inappropriate. Justo himself seemed frightened by her enthusiasm, but on the whole, he just looked pleased with himself for being quite the hit with his date. The few moments they weren’t cooing at each other, he hunched over his food, while she draped an arm over the back of his chair, cupped her chin in her hand (elbow on the table!) and surveyed the rest of the room. Where her gaze swept, a sea of faces turned away. She appeared not to notice.

Everyone was watching them; it was hard not to. The loudness of her laugh, the easiness of her manner, saw to that. Lizette herself kept up a litany of the girl’s social faux pas, hissing each one to me as they occured. Dondi and Tina were likewise engaged, and had enlisted the support of the rest of our table. I, despite my own outrage, limited myself to a few well-placed, wry, patronizing remarks about Justo’s “luck”. Certainly nothing could be gained from paying any sort of attention to them.

But at one point I caught Dondi eyeing me while I stared at Justo and his date, and for a moment I feared that he had seen through my detachment and sensed my own fuming. In spite of our closeness, I would never have admitted to him, not at that moment anyway, what was going through my mind. But I saw his eyes glaze over as he held my gaze for a moment longer, then turned away. I knew then that we were thinking the same thing, and he had recognized it in the envious way that I looked at Justo and his date.

It wasn’t that she was particularly attractive—she was not—but that she seemed relaxed, and therefore fun. This was a girl unfazed by formality, by the stiffness of the evening’s proceedings. She would have been just as comfortable at a bowling alley. She could be a flesh and blood friend, rather than a porcelain date you escorted gingerly, and that made her infinitely more desirable than any of the well-bred beauties in the Clubhouse that night.

What fascinated me most was the casualness of Justo’s physical contact with her, how it was taken for granted, forgotten. In those days, there was as yet no notion of “personal space,” but it applied in the case of one’s sweetheart: Only bad girls could be touched, would allow themselves to be touched, and they certainly couldn’t be brought to formal occasions. The boys of St. Martin’s understood that to do so was to be a fool for handling used goods.

Therefore, Justo should not have been in such an enviable position. Yet he was, because although he had broken the rule, he looked like he was having fun and would not be the worse for it. In failing to conform to the code of conduct, he had made all of us the fools, for putting up with our stuck-up porcelain dates.

In contrast, I could remember every instance when Lizette and I had ever touched each other—a hand to help her down the stairs or out of the car, her arm in mine as I escorted her to a function, her hands and waist and the small of her back during a dance—every contact associated with and mandated by some social occasion. Otherwise it was as though a layer of impenetrable transparent material surrounded Lizette, and whenever I had to touch her, my hands would settle first on the barrier, and from there see if it would yield to my pressure, if I could continue. My hands would hover around her, guiding her into a room or into a seat, whispering close to her skin or the fabric of her dress, but not once coming into contact.

There had only been one instance when any improper contact had been made—once, in the car. I interrupted her while she was saying something. We were parked on the Cliff past ten, as were several other couples in their own cars. This was in the good old days when stick shifts protruded from the steering column and the front seat was as good as a sofa. I had my arm on the seat back and just leaned into her and placed my mouth on hers. She made a slight noise, raised a hand to ward me off, but allowed the indiscretion. Her hand remained upraised, and her body remained bent in the same stiff angle, and her mouth, caught in mid-utterance, remained open at about the same diameter, only more rigid, like the end of a pipe. She allowed me a few moments, suffered my hands groping from one breast to the other as my other hand clamped her neck in position (not that there was any need to). I say allowed and suffered because this is what it felt like—nothing in her demeanor indicated any participation from her beyond that. Then she pushed me away. My mouth released hers with a small sucking sound, and I breathed an apology as she dabbed at her lips with a hanky. And it was over.

I caught Dondi staring at Tina while she observed Justo and his date, yammering the entire time. Again, Dondi and I were thinking the same thing.

 The combo had begun to reassemble in the meantime, and presently Felix and the bandleader exchanged nods. Felix waited for the song to end, switched off the turntable and ambled over to our table as the bandleader introduced the second set.

“Would you look at that?” Felix drawled, sliding a chair behind me and Lizette. “Who would have known?” He was enjoying himself. I was still playing Prudent Percy and pretended not to understand. The girls at our table rose to Felix’s goading, though, hackles raised. Justo’s date was torn to shreds at our table, starting with her gown, proceeding to her coiffure and make-up, and then her behavior and possible background. Dondi refused to meet my eye and I knew that he knew that the girls had sensed our envy of Justo. Perhaps we didn’t recognize it as envy at that point—too many things had yet to happen that evening—but it was there, along with a destructive resentment at Justo for doing what we all longed to do ourselves.

Couples began to file obediently into the dining area even before the drummer began his count. Despite the hubbub no one failed to note how it was the girl who stood and tugged at Justo’s jacket sleeve. Justo beamed up at her, his cheeks bulging with food, and swiped a napkin at his mouth before taking her hand—taking her hand—and moving to the dance floor, chewing as he went.

The band had struck up a lively boogie, and the hall came alive. Our table opted to sit this one out, and thus we discovered that Justo and his date did not know how to dance.

Oh, the girl seemed to know a thing or two, but Justo was impossible. He studied the footwork of the person next to him and launched into an arrhythmic veering and careening, dragging the poor girl with him and ramming into anyone who came too near. The grunts and complaints didn’t bother them in the least—they erupted in peals of childish laughter. Soon there was a sufficient space for them to carry on whatever it was they were doing—those who had not left the dance area fuming gave them a wide berth in which to perform.

And performing it seemed, for to the rest of us they were playing it to the hilt, throwing their insolence into our faces and milking the moment for all it was worth. We played along, much to my eventual regret. I felt the anger building up at our table and the rest of the hall, as Justo and his date, the couple of the evening, carried on.

The hours of dancing lessons and practice sessions on display on the dance floor that night seemed not to faze the pair in the slightest. They laughed at their own mistakes, broke step to study each other’s clumsiness, and exaggerated their difficulty at following the beat. Often the girl would collapse breathless in Justo’s arms before resuming the dance position. And to my growing consternation, the contact of their bodies through it all was unrestrained, comfortable. Justo handled her as though he was accustomed to fondling her everyday, stroking the small of her back, holding her hands, her waist.

The combo had noted their delight and played to them, doing two more boogies back-to-back, a mambo, and a cha-cha, all of which the pair bungled without the least bit of shame. By the second boogie many couples had left the dance floor, only to be replaced by others who had stalked off earlier, having decided not to allow the daring duo to ruin the occasion for them. Lizette urged me to tell the bandleader to play some slow ones to put an end to the sideshow, and I made a few half-hearted attempts to signal to them from my seat. The truth was, I was afraid that Justo was not about to let anything get in the way of his having a grand old time, and were I to put a stop to it, he would cause a scene and embarrass me. I was too distracted that evening to notice how the tables had turned.

When the combo finally decided to change tempo, something else happened, proving my impression of the girl right. As the first notes of a slow drag began, Justo’s date stepped back from him, fanned herself, and began to undress. Her gown came with a little short-sleeved waist-jacket, which she took off in the middle of the dance floor, revealing bare shoulders and generous portions of back and bosom. She strode to her chair to drape the jacket over the back, oblivious to the collective gasp that came from all over the room. Justo remained on the dance floor, his arms dangling at his sides, nodding sheepishly at the other dancers staring at him and graciously looking away when they refused to acknowledge his greeting. The girl was on her way back by this time, and it was at that moment that everything turned for me.

I had been staring at Justo all that time, and suddenly he caught my eye. When he grinned at me and waved, it was too late to look away. I caught myself smiling in return, and my hand had already begun rising off the table when Lizette slammed it back down. Before I turned to Lizette I saw that Justo had seen the little incident, and his face registered the first signs of realizing that he was perhaps not completely welcome at the occasion.

Lizette glared at me and as I felt my face reddening she stood up and dragged me to the dance floor by the hand that she had just slapped down on the table.

Tina and Dondi followed, while Felix snuck off to take a nip out of his flask, and we found ourselves joining the ring of couples circling Justo and friend, albeit at a safe distance. All of us exhibited perfect dance form, but Justo had folded himself into the girl, who wrapped herself around him. I watched his hands pressed firmly on her back, his arms hugging her sides, his face nuzzling the bare expanse of her nape. Lizette had begun to jerk under my hands, and I saw that she was craning her head about, searching for a chaperone. No one was looking, naturally.

I don’t know if or when Lizette exchanged signals with the other girls on the dance floor—I wasn’t looking at her, because none of the boys looked at their partners at dances. But I soon realized that we had somehow drifted closer to Justo, as had the other couples, forming a tighter ring around them. The other pairs were doubtless led by the girls, as I had been. Only they could have found the thought of moving closer to such an intimate display logical. My own impulse was to look elsewhere and go as far away as possible.

But we were closer to Justo and the girl, who remained oblivious to our increased proximity. As soon as I realized this, I heard the girls speaking—addressing themselves to no one in particular, but the direction of their heads indicated for whose benefit the words were spoken. Their voices rose above the smooth tones of the crooner.

“The nerve!”

“—no manners—”

“—disgusting displays—”

“This is a formal occasion!”

“—no right—”


I had never known Lizette to be so confrontational, and yet here she was, practically straining at my arms as though to launch herself at Justo and his date like a tiger. When I looked around, I saw a ring of glaring, grimacing, dolled-up girls twisted in the arms of their dates, just barely maintaining the proper dance frame, circling ever closer and closer to Justo and his date, who remained engrossed in each other.

The girl showed a slight reaction, just once. Now, I think if she had remained ignorant of the room’s general sentiments about her, things would not have gotten out of hand. But she lifted her head and opened her eyes once, just once, and looked over Justo’s shoulder into the angry eyes of at least 20 debutantes who glided past her in the arms of escorts who must have resembled frightened sheep at that point. She did nothing at first, just met their contemptuous stares and perhaps heard the whispered invectives. But then she broke the look. She turned away first, shut her eyes, and inclined her head towards Justo’s again. She certainly realized that she was on unfamiliar ground and it was likely that in her mind she had done the right thing by maintaining her dignity while deferring to the dominant females circling her. She could not have made a more serious error of judgment.

The song ended, we all stepped apart from each other, and the bandleader took the opportunity to engage in a little patter. The girl whispered something to Justo. As they headed off to the refreshments table, Lizette dragged me after them at a safe distance.

We congregated in a corner of the hall—me, Lizette, Dondi, Tina, Felix, and a few others who would not figure in the events of that evening. Lizette and Tina led the discussion.

“We have to do something,” they said almost at the same time. The ‘something’ they spoke of was difficult to ascertain; to be honest I don’t think we were entirely sure of what we wanted to happen, much less what it was that had provoked such hostile behavior. I suppose it must have been Justo’s stepping out of bounds by becoming too comfortable at the Soiree, although I could be correct and say that they were mocking all of us by carrying on so scandalously.

No one had a response to the girls’ assertion. We were still watching the pair guzzling punch, fanning themselves. It didn’t occur to us to let them be. Things could have been that much simpler, after all.

Felix finally broke the silence. “I know what to do.” Again I wish I could have stopped him then. But it had to happen. We watched him walk up to the punch bowl, nodding to Justo as he approached, and help himself to a cup of punch. He was faking drunkenness, and doing a poor job, but he managed to teeter convincingly to one side and then trip, spilling his drink all over the girl’s gown. There was a startled Oh! and Justo naturally rushed to her defense.

The punch had run down the front of her dress. Felix aggravated it by moving closer to her, emptying the rest of his cup’s contents with more accuracy. He pretended to fumble with the cup and his hands found the sides of the girl’s breasts and her upper stomach before she realized what he was doing and pushed him away.

For once that evening, Justo didn’t know where to put his hands, so when he rushed to her side all he could do was wave them around as he fussed about her. He caught her black look at Felix, and Felix’s own leering grin, so he decided to slam his hands on Felix’s chest and push him away. Felix sprang right back and shoved Justo against the buffet table, which shifted a foot or two without overturning. The top of the four-foot floral centerpiece quivered, but remained upright. Justo was no less skinnier than Felix, but physical combat was an alien activity to him. He remained bent over the table for a moment before launching himself at Felix, swinging his fists blindly. The girl had laid aside her worries about her dress and sprang between the two boys. This was how Justo’s fist connected with her shoulder, throwing her backwards into Felix’s arms. With the perfection of a choreographed boogie maneuver, Felix caught her under her arms and clamped each outspread hand over the girl’s breasts. Everyone was watching, by this time, to Felix’s obvious delight—his smile clearly told us that he was pleased with himself.

Justo was stammering apologies to the girl, who extricated herself from Felix and gave him a slap that echoed in the hushed ballroom. The combo had stopped playing to watch, so we all heard the slap followed by our collective gasp. Nothing like this had ever happened in our polite decorous lives, and I for one was not entirely sure about how to respond to the situation. My first instinct had been to alert a responsible adult present, until I remembered that there were none. The combo and the waiters could hardly be counted upon to settle this matter. The club’s manager would have to be summoned.

As the girl fled to the powder room, some of the waiters had the foresight to rush to the scene and surround Felix, with the intention of leading him away. Why they didn’t restrain Justo is still a mystery to me—did they think that Felix ought to be protected from harm, being rich? In any case, they waited for Justo to rush Felix again, this time clipping him on the chin before being surrounded himself and dragged to a safe distance.

What I remember most clearly about those moments is that apart from Felix, Justo and the waiters, no one moved. The girls had all shrieked, hands had fluttered to cover open mouths, but we all remained rooted where we stood, transfixed at the unfamiliar scene unfolding before us. I also remember glancing at Lizette and being completely stumped by the expression on her face. I suppose it was just the shock at recognizing bloodlust in the eyes of someone who would have gone faint at the sight of blood and who could never think of lust.

Justo backed off, probably realizing that he was in well over his head. Felix continued to yell out challenges over the shoulders of waiters who towed him further and further away from the buffet table, which was now being restored to its original position.

Justo headed for the powder room, and Felix joined us. Lizette spoke up first. “Good for you.”

The others indicated their agreement, patting Felix on his back. I laughed nervously, unsure of whether I should join in or maintain the distance that I had assumed for most of the evening. The atmosphere in the ballroom, I noticed, had been restored.

Perhaps it was because the combo had resumed playing; or perhaps because Justo and the girl had disappeared from the room. Perhaps it was just me. But the chatter in the room had returned to the moderate, relaxed, lighthearted levels they had been at before everything started to happen. Doubtless everyone was discussing what they had just seen, but something had been released, and now things were back to normal. I glanced around the room at the bright happy faces and knew that the Soiree had been saved. It had taken an ugly scene and the threat of violence, but I was not going to become the chairman of a Soiree that flopped. I turned back to my group, who were still congratulating Felix.

“Serves him right.”

“They were being downright bastos, even.”

“He knew he was in the wrong. That’s why he didn’t bother.”

I felt I had to say something.

“You did the right thing.” I nodded at Felix. “Everyone knows that the Soiree is a formal occasion.”

Lizette backed me up.

“We had every right to get rid of him. They were disrupting the Soiree.”

I noted how she had appropriated what had been a generally solo decision by Felix, but I let it pass.

“Where are they now?” Tina was craning her neck in the direction of the exit.

The door had a narrow glass panel, and we all moved towards it. The doors to the men’s and ladies’ rooms were visible along the corridor, but there was no sign of the two. The corridor was a dead end—a divan and wall mirror were at the far end, throwing back the sight of us crowded into the narrow glass panel, like in some Three Stooges movie. Lizette pushed the door. “Let me check.”

She walked to the powder room, but before she could enter, the door opened and Justo stepped out. Lizette stepped back in surprise. Justo glanced at her but dropped his eyes as his date appeared in the doorway. He looked at her and said something which we didn’t hear, and came straight at us, with Lizette in pursuit.

We backed away from the door, expecting him to charge Felix again, but he avoided our eyes. When he passed us, Felix couldn’t resist another goading remark that I didn’t catch. Justo ignored it and marched to his table where he retrieved the jacket that the girl had draped over the chair.

“They were in the ladies’ room together!” Poor Lizette was too stunned by the audacity of the situation to say or do anything else. It was beyond her conception of a polite, proper world where boys and girls were neatly segregated and classified.

Her mouth hung open as Justo breezed past us back to his date and helped her put on the jacket and pull it closed over the stain. His hands were alarmingly close to her breasts and I’m sure he brushed them as he helped her do up the rosette clasps down the front of the jacket. All with the same casual ease with which he had touched her, they had touched each other, while they were dancing.

Again I glanced at Dondi and Felix and knew what they were thinking. This much was obvious, considering what happened next, because no significant words were exchanged among us from that moment up until two days after that night, when we finally saw each other at school and found a moment to go over what had happened instead of why we had done what we had done. We certainly knew why, but the reasons were difficult to admit, especially to each other. We would never discuss the why, because we would be forced to admit to weaknesses we did not care to acknowledge.

My fate was determined in the next few seconds. Through the door I heard Justo say to the girl: “It’s all right, Mary Ann.” She seemed reluctant to re-enter the ballroom, but Justo took a firm hold of her hand and led her out, past us, and through the ballroom, past the tables and the curious, contemptuous eyes of everyone else present, and out the arched doorway through which they had made their grand entrance less than an hour before.

As for us, we remained where we were. Dondi, Felix, and I looked at each other, and I think it was I who moved first. I took Lizette’s hand, Dondi took Tina’s, and we all began walking to the exit without a word having been exchanged between us boys. The girls’ questions were ignored, and they stopped asking. Within five minutes we were all crowded into my father’s Benz, following Justo’s old Chevy through the dark streets of Bacolod City.

That was it—that was how I was set on my collision course with destiny, as it were. In retrospect, it seems even more difficult to assign blame. No one had actually said, “Let’s follow them and see what happens,” much less articulate why we should or what we had to gain from doing such a thing. I assume we were bored, despite the Soiree’s importance in our high school lives. I remember thinking that we would only be gone for half an hour to an hour at the most, after which we would return to finish the evening in the safe, prescribed manner.

I couldn’t tell what the others were thinking while we sat in the car. The girls would, from time to time, resume questioning the nature and purpose of our expedition, but in the lulls I could tell they were just as excited as the rest of us. In the rearview mirror I could see Felix and Dondi craning their necks for a better view of Justo’s car up ahead, which I kept at a safe distance to avoid detection. As we passed streetlights, the passing sweeps of light would illuminate expressions of glee and morbid fascination—the sort of expressions one sees on the faces of spectators at a fight, or at the scene of an accident.

What it boiled down to, as shameful as it is to admit, was sex. Dondi and Felix would never admit to this, except in jest. I knew them well enough in those days to know the truth, though. The three of us had been a tight trio through most of high school, with others attaching and detaching themselves as time went by. The three of us took our tentative steps into manhood together, each one trying to outdo the other without leaving them too far behind—we all were aware of the loneliness that awaits the one who outgrows the others.

Many of the steps, the most memorable ones, anyway, involved previously forbidden vices—alcohol, tobacco, firearms, gambling, and sex. This last was the most pernicious by far, for once we had exhausted the novelties of self-stimulation it became necessary to involve a consenting partner. We had all sampled the delights of Dewey Street, Bacolod’s red-light district, and the various houses on Lizares, del Monte, and behind the electrical plant. The ladies there were convenient, but it was quite another matter to take a girl to bed without paying her first. To my knowledge, not one of us boys in the car that night had ever had non-commercial sex—not even Felix, who had generally taken the lead in matters of sexual initiation. His father had bought him a woman when he was 13, and it was he who had taught us the ins and outs of the flesh trade.

My attempts with Lizette had been nipped in the bud several times before, and I knew it was the same with Dondi and Tina, because he would have told me otherwise. We hadn’t discussed having sex with our girlfriends in a long while, mostly out of embarrassment, and we took refuge in a smug demeanor that said, “I’m above such petty matters.” We weren’t, of course—many double dates had ended on Dewey Street after Lizette and Tina had been safely, chastely deposited at their respective homes. My lovemaking with the prostitutes on such occasions would be frantic, furious—the release of four or five hours worth of pent-up sexual longing.

 And then there were the furtive escapades on Felix’s farm. One summer, the three of us spent a weekend there by ourselves, and on our way Felix had been promising us a treat. That evening a field worker came to the big house and led us into the fields to a shanty where the workers rested during the day. There, three girls were waiting for us. Farm girls—cousins or even sisters of the boy. We drank tubâ with them before we picked our partners—no argument, since given their appearance, one was as good as the other—and took turns in the shanty. All three girls got pregnant, we heard, but no one came knocking at our doors, because they apparently had sweethearts of their own who were conveniently willing to marry them.

But now, here was Justo, whose date was obviously “easy” but also neither a prostitute or a farm girl. The joint humiliation they had undergone at the Soiree could be used as the pretext for some highly emotional conversation which, if handled with tact, could lead to intercourse, or something close to it, and this was what obsessed me, us, that night. Justo could be on the verge of making love to someone within his social class, and while we could assume that Justo was not skilled enough to accomplish this, since we ourselves felt more inadequate in this area than we cared to admit back then, we simply had to see if he would pull off that feat which we had been, as far as I know, anyway, trying to accomplish unsuccessfully thus far. That night, my father’s Benz was redolent of the creeping dread of the possibility that Justo, an inferior, would outdo us all. As time has shown, this has proven to be my downfall.

The five of us cruised into the night. In my concentration I did not realize that we had drifted into the poorer side of town until I realized how quiet everyone had become. In those days, the crime rate was modest enough to be shrugged off by a group of unchaperoned teenagers in an expensive car, but it was cause for concern. We were headed deep into the port area, further away from the plaza, the downtown area, past the old mansions, the cemetery, and the newer suburban tracts. We were still on the paved highway, but we passed long stretches of untended vacant lots and sugarcane fields, before coming across the odd hut or shanty by the side of the road, their numbers increasing as we neared the island’s main wharf. This was where the fisherfolk lived, in dense clusters blossoming outward from the pier. I remember imagining how appalling it would be if Justo’s date lived in one of those huts. She didn’t, however. The Chevy eventually turned off the highway into a dirt road that disappeared into a canyon of cogon grass.

 We stopped at the turn-off. I was wondering if it was foolish to continue, and Felix answered for me.

“Turn off your lights and go slowly.”

Her house was a good hundred yards from the highway; there were others like it along the way and beyond, for the road seemed to go on indefinitely. There were no lights in the windows of the houses. It was past 11, and the people living here undoubtedly woke up before dawn to begin a day of honest work.

I stopped the car five houses down. We were just in time to see the girl walk through the bamboo gate, up to the front door. She fished in her purse for a key and let herself in. Justo followed.

Before this fact registered, I had time to note that she had her own key—something completely alien to me and, I am sure, to my companions in the car. A honk of the carhorn at any hour of the day or night would bring a servant, usually a young boy, trotting dutifully up to open the wrought-iron gates of our houses. A doorbell would summon yet another servant from within the house to let us in, that is, if they weren’t already holding the car door open as we alit. The prison-like reality of my home never escaped me in my teen years—I was at the age when freedom was the great ideal, always out of reach—but I always took it for granted that everyone else lived this way as well. Seeing this girl carrying her own key, letting herself in, made her seem more dangerous, and increased Justo’s chances, it seemed, of scoring on that night.

We sat there for a little under an hour, according to the dashboard clock. The boys didn’t speak much, concentrating on the house, waiting for signs of life. A light had gone on in one of the front rooms, but nothing else.

It was quite clear that the girls had a different perception of our expedition’s purpose, judging from the running commentary they kept up. Lizette was fearful and called our attention to sinister or unsightly details in the neighborhood. I found myself examining the wooden houses, realizing that I had never been this close to a house of this class before. Many of them were unpainted wood, most with simple fence posts joined by lengths of crisscrossing wire. A few had two stories; all of them had narrow aprons of weedy earth that served as front yards. The one we were parked in front of had an assortment of tin cans lined up along the street side of the fence, each one emitting a sparse cloud of greenery.

Tina in the back seat grew more and more combative, wondering aloud why we were missing the liveliest part of the Soiree. We had done away with the coronation of the King and Queen of the Night this year, but there was an informal poll going on anyway. Tina no doubt wanted to be there, afraid that her absence would put her out of the running.

It seems a foolish waste of time now, but every minute that ticked past on the clock, my wristwatch, Felix’s and Dondi’s wristwatches, vexed me. Every minute that went by was another minute in which Justo could be getting the better of us all. I had the impression then that the sex act took half an hour—that was certainly how long it seemed to take on Dewey Street—exclusive of the preliminaries and getting dressed. When the minute hand twitched past the half-hour mark I agonized, thinking, not only was he getting some, he was actually good at it.

I decided to take things a bit further by starting up the car and driving past her house slowly, with my lights off. We saw the same things—same light in the same window in the same front room, same Chevy parked in front of the same bamboo fence. I pulled up a little closer to the house, but further down the road—as it turned out, the correct move, for Justo would drive back up the same road later.

When they emerged, I leaned forward to study them for signs of sexual contact. I knew Felix and Dondi were doing the same. The girl had changed into a simpler dress—shorter, yet more modest—something she would wear on an ordinary evening date. Justo was still in his white jacket and bow tie. He didn’t seem the slightest bit ruffled or disheveled, and I allowed myself a silent sigh of relief. Still—anything was possible. We didn’t know anything for sure. They weren’t touching or holding hands—also a good sign.

Justo led her to the driver’s side and pushed her in and over to the passenger side before following her in. For some reason, this struck me as being fun—a fun thing that you could do with a girl you were absolutely comfortable with. I also told myself that Lizette would never do such a thing; it would have seemed tomboyish, even loose, to her.

What frustrated me was my inability to confirm my speculations with either Dondi or Felix, owing to the presence of the girls. I had felt sorrier and sorrier that I had brought them along. This was no place for them. It was similar to the time Dondi and I had taken them to a nightclub—one of the more ill-reputed ones (though not the worst of the lot—Dondi and I had seen to that) at their insistence. The hostesses were tactful enough to stand back when we entered with our dates on our arms. It had been satisfying to play the worldly gentlemen, answering their questions on whether that girl was a prostitute or not, did that doorway lead to the upstairs rooms, did sinful things really happen there, and then shaking our heads like grandfathers at their appalled reactions. They looked at us suspiciously, accusing us of being frequent patrons, but we shrugged them off, pleading common knowledge. To be honest, it made me feel powerful, gave my persona a danger that Lizette could only speculate about. She looked at me differently, gave me odd looks, it’s true, but she played her part and kept her peace. This would be a pattern with my two subsequent girlfriends before Margie—we both knew I wasn’t fooling anyone with my lies about any men-only activities, but they all looked the other way for as long as I remained attentive, solicitous, and affectionate, which I did, up to a point.

The Benz remained unnoticed by Justo, hidden as it was in the shadows further down the road. When they pulled out we were able to follow almost immediately with headlights off. They headed towards the downtown area, to my relief, for I don’t think I would have wanted to go further into the port area in the Benz. Nor would I have wanted to go beyond towards the outskirts of the city, on the way to the coastal road that curved inland towards the mountains. There were still stories of attacks on planters by tulisanes, Huks, and other rebels. It would have been way too dangerous.

I felt more confident now to narrow the distance between the two cars. This way we could see that their heads—Justo’s and Mary Ann’s—were closer than they should have been. She had slid over nearer to him, and had one arm on the back of the seat, probably with one leg tucked under her. She would have been an agreeable companion, and again I felt my envy surge. Acting “proper” had its moments, but it became taxing after a while. I don’t think I ever enjoyed myself with Lizette more than I enjoyed being with Felix and Dondi.

It should be apparent to anyone that I was dissatisfied with my relationship with Lizette, and I was, although like many other truths that played themselves out that night, this was no easier to admit than any of the others. Lizette was precisely the sort of girl I should have been courting, precisely the sort of girl I should have been thinking of marrying, precisely the only sort of girl suitable for a young man of my social position. This was only a few years before the full flame of the American 60s and 70s warmed our shores, and the behavioral patterns of those days still apply to this day, probably because we, the generation who came of age then, are still alive. As I look around me at the young people today, I can’t help but fight the feeling that they are just waiting for us to die out, so the whole world can finally move on. I dislike being a hindrance to progress, try as I might to move with the times. My age betrays me, with its ingrained habits of genealogy tracing and net worth assessment, its collective mind forever attuned to sizing up the rest of the world in terms of position within the social structure.

Still, I see the habits being passed on—parents younger than myself followed by a long succession of heirs (heaven forbid that they even think about birth control or planned parenthood) behaving in the same loud arrogant way, their eyes looking you over, sizing you up—Should I defer to you? Are you an equal or an inferior? Can you be rendered inferior? Should you be a friend? Can you be a friend? Are you useful to me?—all this determined in an instant, before their eyes pass on to the next person. And I want to shake them, slap them, bring them to their senses.

Naturally nothing comes of it, the feeling passes, and I too move on. I move on in the hope that they will come to their own senses, see for themselves, someday. I find my own faith in the new generation touching. My own cynicism kills my sincerity, and I am reduced to yet another of my own kind—those who have given up.

Justo’s car stopped at Lim Yueh’s General Trading in Little Chinatown, near the school that I assumed Mary Ann attended, which was often open all night, as it got most of its business from liquor sales, where they both got out of the car to buy something. I would be belaboring the point here were I to say that Lizette would have remained in the car, scrunched down to avoid detection. They emerged five minutes later with a familiar bottle in a paper bag, and got back into their car.

By this time, our voyeurism occupied us completely. We watched them greedily, our occasional comments only reiterating the obvious: “They’re getting out.” “They’re going to buy drinks.” When they drove off again, there was no more discussion about what to do next. I put the car into gear and drove off; no one objected. I had no sense of whether or not this adventure was going to end any time soon, but I had to see where it would lead next. We all had to.

Justo cruised through downtown, most of which was locked up for the night. He seemed to be driving without purpose. When he turned back onto the highway, though in the direction opposite to the pier, we knew he was heading for the Cliff.

The Cliff was a make-out site whose location was closely guarded among the boys of St. Martin’s. It was nothing more than an open clearing that overlooked the sea, the platform tumbling down a few feet to some rocks. At high tide, the sea would come up to almost the edge of the platform. Certainly not as dramatic as its name would have one believe, but it was useful, thanks to the field of tall cogon grass that you had to drive through before getting to it. The grass and the downslope hid any activity taking place on the platform from the highway, and gave it enough privacy for trying anything there. If legend were to be believed, the entire 1955-56 graduating class of Our Lady’s had all been deflowered (on separate occasions) by zealous members of their counterpart class at St. Martin’s. That particular batch of girls had tarty reputations and were famous for keeping the nuns preoccupied. The Senior batch of St. Martin’s often had the knowledge of the Cliff’s location. It was a sign of ineffable coolness for a Freshman to know where it was.

At any rate, the mood in the car perked up when we realized where he was going. The boys and I realized it first, for I’d never brought Lizette there, and Dondi had never mentioned bringing Tina there. Felix patted my shoulder, and I nodded, smiling. In the rearview mirror I saw him and Dondi exchange glances. I believe we were actually excited for him, for Justo, poor lonely outsider Justo, who never merited more than a cursory glance in the hallways of St. Martin’s, and now had us all in the palm of his hand, rapt and eager, waiting to see what he would do next. He had no idea that for this night he was finally popular beyond belief.

He didn’t turn left at the narrow dirt road off the shoulder at Kilometer 23, though, continuing past it instead. I heard Dondi’s slight “Huh?” and Felix’s knowing snicker. Perhaps Justo wasn’t as in the know as he’d appeared to be after all. A kind of relief set in, but I couldn’t deny my disappointment. After all that he’d put me through that night, after all his carrying on, I was, strangely enough, rooting for him. I wanted him to succeed.

He turned at another road, this one barely discernible from the overgrowth. I passed it, saw the two red taillights receding into the cogon. I continued past to a safe distance and made a U turn, killing my lights before pulling to a stop at the corner of the road. The Chevy’s taillights had disappeared.

“Where does he think he’s going?” Dondi spoke up.

“He’ll know he made a mistake,” Felix said. “Back up and he’ll come out sooner or later.”

“What is this place?” Tina wanted to know.

I looked over at Lizette, mainly to see if she was all right. Her gaze was steady, clear, but blank, and she stole the words from my mouth.

“He knows about the Cliff.”

Tina immediately began yammering “What’s this cliff?” but I couldn’t take my eyes off Lizette, nor could I respond to her statement. Her tone of voice had been neutral, but her face had a subtle mocking challenge to it. I didn’t like it at all. I’d always found it difficult to “read” her, and at that moment she seemed to be telling me several conflicting messages at once. Her statement and the way she said it told me that she’d known about the Cliff, that she recognized it, and the mere implications of these facts, whether real or imagined, stunned me, and forced a number of other questions to follow—questions I wasn’t sure I wanted answered.

She turned her head to look up the dark road, the waving cogon. The neat waves of her coif and the nape of her neck offered as many answers as her face had.

“Let’s go see what happens.”

Felix and Dondi had sunk back in their seats, watching us, to see what I would do, or hear what she would say next. Even Tina had been silenced by the grim authority in Lizette’s voice.

She must have known all that time what we were up to—our behavior must have seemed sadly transparent to anyone—but there are moments when you believe you are getting away with something, and moments when you underestimate someone quite unfairly. At any rate I never found out how much she knew or understood or how she came about such information—the events of later that evening eclipsed everything else, and I would never find the courage to bring it up with her. She kept her face averted, and so without glancing at the others in the back I backed up the car a bit and turned into the dark road, into the cogon.

We didn’t know how far into the field we had to go, or in which direction. As with all forays into unfamiliar territory, it seemed to take forever. The trail was narrow. If we had stopped in the middle there wasn’t enough room to open the doors to get out. Blades of grass slapped and slithered on the windows. So much for sneaking up on them—we were making so much noise, and the Benz growled as it negotiated the bumpy path—for all we knew we would happen upon them in the next moment.

One more turn and the grass opened up to a wide rocky apron that ended in a sweeping vista of the ocean. Stars glittered in the sky, and a sliver of moon had just begun to rise. I braked at the opening to peer out my window. Justo’s car was parked way down on the far end. The windows were rolled up, and there were no signs of life. I scanned the rest of the place. No one in sight.

“They’re in there.” Felix had hooked his arms over the front seat. “Park over there, quick!” He indicated a spot on the opposite end of the Cliff. I thought it appeared too close to the edge, but by this time I was too excited about being near the end of the night’s adventure to worry. The grass on the apron came up to our calves, making parking tricky, but we had to get in a spot that would make it least visible to the occupants of the other car. That meant the opposite end, behind where the taller cogon swooped into the apron a bit.

I shut off the engine and we three boys alighted, crouching. We had forgotten about Lizette and Tina. I do remember them saying some things in little frightened voices that seemed to come from far away. I also remembered motioning for them to follow, all pretenses at societal niceties and gentlemanly behavior forgotten. I never even looked to check if they had followed; I was too intent on the car sitting on the other end of the Cliff.

We kept close to the wall of cogon, where the shorter grass of the apron was tall enough to blend in with. Thoughts of snakes, spiders, and other creatures of tall grasses I ignored. It was barely within my power to keep from giggling like a madman.

We moved as close as we dared to the car, a distance of about 15 feet, and stopped. The sound of our rustling and trampling silenced, we finally became aware of how quiet it was. It wasn’t really quiet, of course—the cogon hissed and rustled, and from beyond the Cliff’s edge came the surge and hiss of the ocean attacking the rocks below. Beneath all that, weaving in and out of the noise, was music. A muffled, tinny song was wafting towards us from Justo’s car.

From where we crouched, I duckwalked towards the Chevy, so as not to ruin my trousers. I felt exposed when the grass gave way to sandy gravel, and I had to slow down to minimize the crunching sounds my shoes were making. The song grew louder, and nothing stirred in the car, but I kept my eyes on the windows anyway, ready to bolt at the slightest movement from within.

Two feet away from the car door, I stopped. My breath was coming in long, fast gusts and my heart was pounding so hard I could barely hear anything else. I glanced back and saw Dondi’s and Felix’s heads bulging out of the grass, not moving. Neither of them gave any movement or made any signal. Very helpful. I turned back to the car.

All I had to do now was raise myself to the window and peek in. I was afraid of touching the car, for fear an alarm would go off, or that I would shake the car and alert its occupants to my presence. As I raised myself my legs began to complain. Searing pain ran through my calves, thighs, and ankles. My knees began to buckle. I kept my mouth closed and tried not to breathe too loudly, but my whole body was quivering from the effort of standing up. My head inched higher and higher, and in degrees I saw more of the car’s interior: the rearview mirror, the door lock plunger, the top of the steering wheel, the top of the seats, the top of the dashboard.

I didn’t know what to make of the first scream when I heard it. The sound was so faint and faraway, and so brief and unfamiliar. I had never heard a real human sound of fear before then. I froze in mid-squat and turned my head to where it came from. There was a moment, then another longer scream.

There were fumbling sounds from inside the car and I saw shadows pop up from the back seat. I fell backwards, forgetting about my formal clothes, and clawed my way to the cover of the grass. Dondi and Felix had retreated, neither of them offering me any help.

I shot a glance back at the car and saw that Justo had alighted. His jacket was off and his shirt open, and he was looking right at me. I ceased all attempts at hiding, scrambled to my feet, and ran, with Felix and Dondi a couple of bounds ahead. Justo called out a hostile “Hoy!” from behind us, and I was praying that it was too dark for us to be recognized, and that he was too frightened to chase us. Another scream.

The blood rushed out of my face and neck when the Benz came into view. Lizette was standing beside it and resumed her screaming when she saw us, for half of the car had backslid over the edge of the Cliff. The rear wheels were resting on a small outcropping just beneath the edge, and the front wheels were about a foot off the ground.

In a panic, Dondi turned to me and shouted the obvious: “George, the car’s going to fall!”

Felix took a flying leap and slammed his torso down on the car’s hood, rocking it and causing it to slide backwards a little more, and lifting the front wheels even higher. Dondi and I both let out startled grunts and climbed onto the car’s hood together and hugged it as though we were soothing a carabao threatening to go berserk. The car’s front sank slowly with our weight, like something had deflated underneath, and stopped moving.

Lizette was yelling for Tina in the back seat to get out. Tina had stopped screaming when Felix landed on the car, but she was now whimpering with her hands clasped at her mouth. It was hard to tell in the dark, but it was at least 10 feet from the edge of the Cliff to the first line of rocks below, and there was a little rocky slope before the sand and the ocean. She probably would survive the fall if the car went over, but not without serious injuries and a big scare.

The car felt stable for the time being, but we must have been all afraid that it wouldn’t last. We all began yelling at Tina to get out, which only rattled her further. She didn’t change her position, although her face grew even more contorted behind her fists.

Justo came running up, peering at our faces but betraying no surprise at recognizing us. He went to the edge of the Cliff, planting his feet among the rocks, and gingerly opened the rear door of the car. The car’s front end bobbed every so slightly, prompting the three of us on the hood to plaster ourselves even more firmly to it. Mary Ann had come walking up as well, hugging herself because of the wind.

Justo began speaking to Tina in a low reassuring voice, calling her “Miss,” and telling her to take his hand, which he stretched out to her, the other one holding the heavy door open. Only Tina’s eyes had moved in all this time; she was studying the boy who spoke to her with a grown-up’s authority. Lizette offered shrill encouragement from the other side of the car, but Justo continued talking to her with that voice, his eyes never leaving hers, and the hand steady, palm up, slicing the air between them.

Finally, Dondi screamed, “Tina, just go!” from where he was, and Tina finally unclasped her hands to reach out to Justo. Obeying Justo’s gentle instructions to go “Easy—slowly,” she slid over to the door and extended a leg outside the car, seeking firm ground and hiking up her skirt. We all fell silent as she eased her weight to that foot and stepped out of the car. Once out, she clung to Justo, who staggered a little, sliding down the embankment a bit, and gently lowered the door until he could let it go.

Tina refused to release him, so together they clambered back up the embankment like participants in a three-legged race, Justo’s open shirt flapping around the two of them. When they were safely back up on the Cliff, we all released a collective breath. Almost instinctively, Dondi, Felix and I relaxed our necks and lay our heads on the Benz’s hood at the same time. The lightened Benz reflected the tiny shift in balance with a groan and a disproportionate rock. Our heads snapped right back up, accompanied by the girls’ squeals of terror.

“Hoooooooo,” Dondi said.

No one wanted to be the last to get off; the three of us began inching our bodies down the hood. Our knees hugged the polished iron, vainly trying to get a grip. The car shuddered with every wiggle. As we got our bodies bent over the front, our feet kicking in search of the ground, I felt the car begin to slip backwards, but very slowly. Then the tip of my shoe touched gravel and I transferred my weight to that foot and stumbled back. The car began to slide faster, with Dondi and Felix still squirming on it. Dondi managed to fall off and roll clear.

I heard myself shouting at Felix not to get off, to keep his weight on the car, oblivious to the fact that if the car went over, Felix would go with it. No one noticed my callousness, least of all Felix, who managed to jump off, but tried to obey my orders by hanging on to the fender and digging his heels into the earth as thought he could pull the car up himself. The car kept right on moving, and Felix’s wing-tips left grooves in the soil.

I heard everyone shout Let go! and I remember suppressing the urge to say No! Hang on to it! Felix released his grip and his body snapped backwards. His buttocks thumped heavily on the ground just moments before the Benz’s front wheels lifted off the ground and the car made a thundering departure over the edge of the Cliff. We all cringed as it did, making that high sound in the middle of our throats. Metal rattled and thudded as the car hit rocks on its way down. But just as the car was about to disappear from view, there was a tremendous crash, some rattling, then stillness. We could hear the wind and the waves again. The car had come to rest on a narrow ledge down the incline, and stayed that way until the police and the fire department came to pull it back up later that morning. Felix and Dondi glanced at me a few times, but I couldn’t meet their eyes. I looked no one in the eye until Papa arrived and stood before me. I realized I had collapsed into a sitting position on the grass, with my hands limp on my knees. I remembered to close my mouth as I stared at the car’s underside, but other than that I didn’t move for a long time.

I don’t exaggerate when I say that things never were the same after that. Dondi, Felix, and I remained tight buddies after that night, but I sensed a withdrawal from them—I was no longer the infallible leader I once was. Lizette and I broke up the summer after graduation. She had other boyfriends after me, and finally ended up with, of all people, Felix. They’re happily married, as far as she’s concerned, but Felix and I continue to go out on night sorties regularly. Dondi and Tina never split up, and they turned into a model couple on Bacolod, very visible in the charismatic movement.

As for Justo, he disappeared into the vocational college after graduation. He never came to the St. Martin’s homecomings either. I didn’t care, most of the time. Perhaps I wondered what became of him and Mary Ann a few times, but otherwise I didn’t want to know. We did meet up again, though, sixteen years later. This story wouldn’t be complete without a coda.

Felix brought his name up casually while we played pelota at his home. Margie and Lizette were there, and two other couples. Lizette remembered the night. It was another opportunity to bring up the Soiree and the car again, but Felix mercifully cut the retelling short. Without going into detail, he mentioned that the new Texas Disco downtown belonged to Justo. This disco was, as usual, a front for a brothel, and Justo was said to be managing it along with his long-time girlfriend, a woman who used to work at another nightclub. Lizette asked Felix how he had come across the information, and he fed her a plausible account of their mechanic’s friend who worked at an auto supply store next to the disco. I was as certain that this was not the truth as I was that Lizette would ply him with more accusatory questions later, in private.

A week or two later, Felix told me the real story as we headed for Texas Disco in his car one evening. He had been to the place himself once, and had been given a hearty welcome by Justo himself. I was rabid with curiosity about how he had turned out, and surreptitiously checked out my own appearance in the side mirrors of the car. My hair had started to gray in college, then stopped, leaving me with a distinguished salt-and-pepper head. Felix and I had grown matrimonial paunches and the beginnnings of jowls. I asked Felix what Justo looked like now, and Felix gave a vague stock response: “He got fat, man.” I was still wondering how fat when we pulled up to Texas Disco.

It had a deceptively modest frontage—a standard unit in the middle of a three-story commercial building that housed a hardware store, a glass-and-aluminum store, and the auto supply next to it. Its sign was framed by incandescent bulbs, and its name was spelled out by a writhing lariat, with a cowboy boot and ten-gallon hat dancing beside it. The unit’s outside walls had been painted green, making the rest of the building look even older and seedier than it was. We were not in the good part of town, because establishments like this never pretended to cater to the respectable men of Bacolod’s elite, but welcomed all patrons. The only attempt at exclusivity was the standard “No slippers or sando” sign next to the narrow glass door.

Inside, there was a curtained foyer where a courteous bouncer frisked us under dim red lights. Beyond the black curtain, the space opened up dramatically. The disco had appropriated the back rooms of its next-door neighbors, which made for enough floor area to contain several tables, booths along the walls, a bar with stools, a sizeable thrust stage, and an afterthought of a dance floor off to the side. The place was half-filled with shadowy male forms hunched over beer bottles, and several brightly-lit, half-naked female forms slinked back and forth across the stage to a loud, tinny ballad.

Justo emerged from the shadows before I was ready to face him. He was just suddenly there, shaking Felix’s hand, patting him on the shoulder, calling him “Paré” with a salesman’s grin. Felix pointed to me: “Remember George?” And Justo was all effusiveness and warmth again. I played along, laughing at nothing as we exchanged how-are-yous. He led us to an empty booth, “unless you want to sit next to the stage?” and ordered beers from an obliging waiter.

Still standing, he laid a hand on our shoulders. “Welcome to my place. You guys have a good time, OK? I’ll be back.” He went to murmur to the bartender, and then to the cashier, and disappeared behind a curtained door next to the bar. He was no longer the shy, tentative square who failed to fit in. He moved as though he knew everything he came across would part to make way for him. His shirt was shiny and expensive-looking, and his slacks were tailored. He had put on some weight, I noted with relief, but no more than Felix or I had.

Felix told me that the curtained door led upstairs, where there were cubicles for quickies. The dancers had numbers printed on cardboard circles tied with ribbons around their ankles, because in the course of their performance all fabric was gradually removed from their bodies. This was a far cry from the other clubs, where only bras came off, if at all, and breasts were covered with cupped hands or forearms. There, as here, you could call a dancer by her number to your table through the waiter, and you were required to buy her at least one drink before taking her upstairs. You paid a standard rate for the room and the girl, and tipping was mandatory. If you wanted to take her somewhere else, you had to pay a hefty fee to the disco and wait until the club closed.

It was an ordeal to make conversation with Felix, and later Justo when he returned to our table after our beers were served. He and Felix got along like old friends, guffawing, slapping each other shoulders, leering at dancers. Felix was being himself, acting interested in every girl who came onstage, and Justo obliged by citing each one’s assets and promising an even better one who would come on later. Justo cheerily confirmed that he was living with an ex-prostitute who helped him run the disco. I couldn’t find it in myself to join in the ribbing about what kind of sex he was getting. All I could manage were polite, serious inquiries: How much do you make in a night? Where do your girls come from? Who did you have to bribe at City Hall, and for how much? Justo answered my questions with equal gravity, and I knew he could sense my discomfort.

Then he said, “So, I hear you married Margie Jarabas.” I stammered affirmation and launched into an ill-advised recitation about how I met her, how we got married, how many kids we had, and how the marriage was. Justo paid close attention to every word I said.

It was clear to me even then that Justo had really won, because I was jealous of him, of his seedy nightclub, his outfit that tried too hard, his very skilled girlfriend. He had grown up outside the rarefied circle of the respectable and admired elite of Bacolod, and now he flouted the order with his unacceptable but very public business, because he knew it was more fun to be free. Felix and I would have to lie about where we spent the night to our wives and the rest of the world the next morning. Justo would roll onto his back and get a blow job to start his day.

Justo treated me with deference the rest of the evening while I concentrated on my drinking. Felix selected the same flamboyant, randy girl he had chosen on his previous visit. Justo introduced me to a fair-skinned, elegant-looking girl that he claimed was my type. I scrutinized her in the dark trying to figure out what he meant.

We took our girls to rooms upstairs, where I managed to offend the elegant Melanie (stress on the second syllable) by asking if Justo slept with his dancers. She defended him, saying that he treated the girls like his own sisters, and what nerve I had to think so lowly of him, and of her. I still got laid, because it was her job. My worrying about whether she would tell Justo what I said kept me from getting an erection at first. I rewarded her with a generous shut-up tip and told her I was only joking about Justo. She looked puzzled for a moment, then understood and grunted, giving me a dry peck on the cheek.

When we came back downstairs, the bartender informed us that Justo had gone home. Felix and I were presented with the bill. As I fumbled for my wallet, I noticed scrawled on the bottom of the receipt, in the unmistakable St. Martin’s penmanship (but larger and looser) the words “50% discount” underlined twice.

Vicente Garcia Groyon was born in Quezon City in 1970, but has roots in Bacolod. His novel The Sky over Dimas [2003] received the Grand Prize from the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the Manila Critics Circle National Book Award, and the Madrigal-Gonzalez First Book Award. He has published a collection of short stories, On Cursed Ground and Other Stories (2004), and edited anthologies of short fiction. He has written four film scripts, including Agaton and Mindy (2009) and Namets! (2008), and directed several shorts. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from De La Salle University-Manila.

Valencia Drive: A Tribute to Dad


how stained glass
has to be broken
first, for light to fill
and hold, hold up
the cathedral, that is
your life
~ Rowena T. Torrevillas

Myles never had never yet driven the long steep road to Camp Lookout. But he didn’t need tell them that. When Dad said, Come, son, they are waiting (the words spoken sotto voce), he reluctantly slid into the driver’s seat. In utter helplessness, Myles pleaded, Mom, please sit beside me. Dad answered, Of course! If Dad only knew why he wanted her to be by his side, he’d laugh. And right now, he needed Dad’s baritone guffaw to diminish the fear tingling in his fingertips. Dad sat next to Mom.

Glare and heat blasted the windshield. It was a relief that today, the Workshop would be at Valencia’s cool piney camp. The drive wouldn’t be exactly cool, though. His gut twisted. Damn! He had forgotten his sunglasses. His heart, on the harsh edge of panic, thumped hard. Fear mustn’t rise up throat to his eyes—Mom was very good at reading people’s unspoken fears through their eyes. Thank goodness she wasn’t looking. He turned the ignition key. The machine hummed to life.

Except for some discourteous drivers and the black stinking exhaust of diesel fumes, the flat city roads offered little problem. Myles, nonetheless, cringed as he anticipated the drive ahead.

Camp Lookout, Valencia. Over fifteen kilometers up Mt. Talinis. In the 1920s, Silliman University’s faculty members built cottages there to retreat from the deliberating heat, or simply to take relief from life’s daily grind. Up there, the green mountain air restored tired limbs and spirits as one looked down on Dumaguete and neighboring towns and slumbering islands to the east. At night, serenity wrapped the senses like a blanket as the familiar lights from the pulsating city below or those that strangely flickered on dark trees kindled a waking dream. Farther up the mountain to the west was the Palinpinon geothermal field. From there, high voltage overhead transmission lines gifted Negros Occidental and Panay Island with the same electric energy the people of Negros Oriental enjoyed. The place they were heading for, Myles mused, was the island’s fountainhead of power.

Myles glanced at Dad. Every writer and budding artist called him Dad, but Myles’ feeling of sonship carried a special claim. Intensity of attention held those obsidian eyes as they pondered the manuscript they were to discuss that afternoon. Myles first spotted him at Cirilo Origines’ pianos recital. When Myles, who was one of the ushers, handed him a programme, he responded with a warm smile. Myles did not know who he was, as Dad took his seat, manifesting his proprietary manner of sitting, of crossing his legs. A nod, a shake of his dark head acknowledged Myles’ piano teacher nearby and the familiar faces around him. Silence as the recitalist took the piano beach. Above the hush, Myles heard Cirilo breathe deeply, the pianist ready to wrestle with black beast impending in the piano keys. As the Allegro movement of the Beethoven Sonata propelled them to its hammered coda, he noticed that his Dad’s gaze went past the music maker. He wasn’t seeing the pianist but rather the music. Dad closed his eyes as the Larghetto melody was delicately plucked. Myles found this sensitive reaction endearing. He usually did the same thing. This, his friend Julia found amusing. For Myles, the music of the Masters would lure him to the threshold of sleep where his senses were most awake.

The car, to his relief, kept staunchly going.

Now, as they neared the poblacion, Myles saw that his Dad’s lids were shut. What was he seeing? Myles wondered. A lurking mythical beast from a remembered lore, or a siren mesmerized by her own singing, her song damp as the cool breeze (or was he just taking in his beloved’s perfume wafting in the air)? Dad’s face, which greatly resembled Gregory Peck’s (complete with enduring hairstyle in perpetual sheen, wave of hair falling on his forehead to soften his rather sharp nose and stern lips), the relaxed features held an expression of content, of inner peace. He thought he could hear Dad playing in his head Debussy’s Les sons et le parfum tournent dan l’air du soir.

Valencia, finally! Pots of dazzling colors on window sills, flower pots hanging on doorsteps, or simply dotting the green earth. With its altitude and deep in the shelter of Cuernos de Negros, Valencia harbored uncommon varieties of flower and assorted ornamental plants. The coolness mellowed residents and their guests to live the day in the happiest disposition. Myles reflected how Valencia people’s durable family ties, whether of consanguinity or affinity, rivaled the tensile strength of their abaca and twine products.

Myles drove by the church of the Nuestra Señora de los Desamparos, Our Lady of the Abandoned, where, during the great Pacific War, residents as well as those from some towns below, sought refuge and found their spirits restored inside the inviolable sanctuary, quickly gifted with peace and solace and renewed fate which overrode their fear of pain, of hovering death. The church building, designed of massive stone and mortar by the friars, overlooked a sunken plaza dominated by a fountain of waters drawing from the mountain, a mechanism made possible by a friar’s hydraulic invention of long ago. The aged stone and mortar trapped light create gemlike sprays of different hues. It mesmerized the eye, evoking the baroque sensibility of the Spanish era.

About the church, Myles heard Mom say, Monument to memory. He would have added, Man’s collective memory; man’s memory of good created this legendary edifice—but the words got stuck in his throat. Before him loomed the rough beginnings to Camp Lookout. He had never driven this way before, and his tension mounted, his adrenaline rushed. Now, he must be extra careful, on the lookout for the wild tricky bends that could lead to a plunging precipice. He prayed that his hands and legs wouldn’t turn to rubber, to gelatin. His Dad said, I heard someone choke. Mom’s immediate answer was, Just the mountain air, son. You’ll get used to it. Myles nodded, his eyes riveted on an abrupt rocky twist. It looked perilous. And the going will get worse! His mind tumbled helter-skeltering with his racing pulse. Sweat started oozing from his back. It wouldn’t be long before his nape glistened with moisture and his soaked collar betrayed his suppressed apprehension. As his thoughts jumbled, he heard Dad say, It’s good your Toyota pick-up is new, the tires really cling to this treacherous road. Dad’s voice miraculously straightened his disarrayed thoughts and reminded him he was to bring them all to the top of Valencia, at all cost to his craven anxieties. A new sense of determination dredged up the advice of his driver. Automatically, Myles shifted to first gear. The machine roared. Pebbles, stone, gravel, and earth scrunched underneath. He gave his Mom a brave look. She sensed his tension and her dark gypsy eyes glowed with concern anticipating the rough spots still ahead.

Myles had a frank look at those eyes when, by sheer fortuitous event, his writer friend Butch Macansatos found between the pages of Chopin Etudes, a poem Myles had written in his determined efforts to tame his own black beast. Butch, with his penchant for the dramatic, read it aloud:

Mama’s Two Places

It seems like fiesta in your place
On a November afternoon like this
The people with such solemn smiles
Amuse me for a while—

The statued saints bow their heads
Blessing the weeds
Which have become a part of you 

The candles are half-melted
It’s getting dark Ma
I have to leave.
You don’t have to worry about me
Nor I about you.
I know you are in a place
More safe and warm
Just like the tales
You told me fourteen years ago.

Silence. Then Butch insisted he’d show it to his teacher. And you come with me, he had added, and Myles had seen this teacher, she who was called Mom by her students, for the first time…

He remembered the open gate, the sweet smell of ripe mangoes. The spicy aroma of food cooked slow and sure trickles from the kitchen. He has a foretaste of the mango and the other mouthwatering provisions even before she appears to welcome them. Her warmth of speech, her gestures with head and hands remind him of his own mother. Her housedress has wild, rambling flowers. Worn by someone else, it would have looked gaudy. On her, it somehow startled with unexpected majesty. She is easy and light with her steps, but he sees her toes clutch firm the marble floor. That tells him, this is her dominion. Though it is late afternoon, his skin tingles with anticipation, of what, he has no idea. But his sense of being home grows strong. He checks himself, but soon after, when she calls him son, the word Mom glides from him, exultantly.

She takes her time reading the poem. He is restless and nervous as he waits for her reaction. The onslaught of nerves usually plunges him into incoherence or dumb silence, words get glued between his muddled brain and thickening tongue.

What if she does not like it, a dismissive hand would be enough to crush him. To dispel ill thoughts, he focuses on her dark bead, the hair done in the bouffant style current at that time. The head is gravely bowed in concentration. After a long silence, he sees her lift the light. Not the light that glows from the side lamp or the dwindling, settling one reflected on the windowpanes. But the light she has seen in his poem. She speaks, and her words make him understand the power of what he has written. The realization suddenly reveals to him the fat that his music isn’t enough. He needs to write. The cadence empowering her own words affirms his decision.

The side doors opens. The man who enters is above average height, swarthy in complexion, stocky, with well-chiseled cheekbones, strong shoulder blades; his thick eyebrows arch to the eyes shining in cheery welcome. He walks with purpose, holds himself erect as one who knows he has much to be proud of. This is the same man he had seen at Cirilo’s recital. Mom introduces him to Myles as her “best-half,” and Myles extends his hand. Dad’s handshake is as hard as a boxer’s (in the future, this grip would become a warm, hard hug). Myles greets him, Good afternoon, Dad. He smiles. It is one of acceptance.

They take their seats, and the three of them start sharing knowledge which at that time sounds new and alien to Myles. Like a special and privileged sponge, he soaks in their conversation, and while his tongue loosens in eager response he makes mental notes of the books he ought to read. In the middle of these, Butch says, Myles plays the piano. Myles shakes his head as if to say No, but then remembers Julia’s favorite phrase: FH of the LC, which means False Humility of the Lower Class! He holds back his chuckle. Dad says, Go on, son, play. He cannot refuse. Dad has given the nod.

On the Baldwin upright (which, he would learn later, the family lovingly brought with them as they traveled across Iowa’s sweeping rolling fields and the great ocean, to finally settle on the tiny islands of Negros), Myles chooses to play Debussy’s La Cathedral Engloutie. From one shimmering harmonic phrase to another, modulating to masses of lapping chords that hoist the watery cathedral to its heavenly height, finally to the tinkling high notes imitating the chimes which signal the cathedral’s slow sinking back to its translucent world, Myles articulates with his inner eye what he sees and feels of the music. Bound by the spell he has cast on himself, he doesn’t hear Butch’s deep sigh. He wants to hold longer the last lingering chord, but he knows he doesn’t need to. In another time and place, he can evoke the legend, make it rise again from its watery origin. He stands up, notices the closed eyes of his Dad. He knows the true meaning of a fermata, the hallowed adumbrating silence after, Myles tells himself. Moved, he blinks, his vision momentarily blurry. Butch breaks the silence by silence by saying, Debussy is poetry.

Now, as Myles steered them thorugh the bends and twists, the car bouncing and bobbing, he tried hard to summon from memory a poem he could recite, or a tune he could whistle, hopefully to put himself at ease. But all he could hear echoing in his head was Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. Its cacophonic delirious harmony suited the rugged terrain, the lush greens, the long, bent reaching-out growths lashing the windshield, whipping and slapping the window and the sides of the car. Twigs snapped. Branches broke. His head began to ache. Dad must have seen him grimace, for he said, It is the altitude, son. Myles nodded. What could he say? His heart throbbed at an alarming rate as his insides seemed to thrash around. He was giddy, but he kept his eyes alert. He didn’t want to look beyond the tall shrubs, the dangling creepers. For sure, behind the dense vegetation would be a ravine, a cliff. But he would not allow this thought to rob him of the tidbit of courage left in his puny heart. He decided not to glance to the perilous left, and, breathing deep, he focused on his driving. Nervous energy clung to his hands. For release he diverted himself with smiles—this anxiety, he told himself, was nothing to what one felt when his magnum opus was discussed by the Workshop’s panelists. It was the same tense energy cramping up the writer’s gut, that hung ominously in the air like a dark heavy cloud, as fellow-writers-would-be awaited the voice that boomed damnation or spelled salvation!

Last year Myles was a fellow for poetry. He had become used to Mom’s tactful way of delivering criticism and was once totally unprepared for one panelist’s blunt announcement of his deep dislike for a story. As he and the rest of the fellows waited for this particular panelist to speak, the man just stood up, wrung the manuscript lengthwise, silently walked toward the trashbox, dumped the mangled papers, took his seat and calmly announced (with his dirty finger pointing at the trash), That is not a story. Dumb silence. From nowhere, a sharp gasp followed by a wail too shrill it could awaken the hideous dead from their sleep. Then, a mad rush of ruffles and tres marias skirts as the author vaulted toward the door leaving everyone’s mouth agape. Myles squirmed. His poems were next. He felt the contractions of his bladder. He wanted to go to the toilet, but didn’t dare, lest he called attention to himself. With the rest of the fellows and auditors they sat immobile: glass figurines ready to shatter, to break. Myles, mute with fear, shrank in his seat. As his Mom spoke, the fellows who had overflowed with agitated energy started to relax. They listened. Mesmerized, all ears were now cocked to her every word, turn of phrase, the nuances uttered. When Mom was through, Dad said, Any additional comment? No one attempted to speak, they were still clinging to the last strand of her speech. On with the other story, Dad urged. He started with the discussion with his critical comments, so extensive it silenced the other panelists. Myles saw his Mom smile as Dad threw him a quick glance. Bond of complicity, Myles noted, so that the other panelist wouldn’t have a chance to repeat his performance.

As the Workshop progressed, there were times when Dad was very harsh with his criticisms, caustic enough to deflate any flatulent illusion a writer had about his work. His sharpness penetrated gauzy ambiguity commonly and grossly employed by callow writers unsure of their craft. Often enough egos were smashed. One had to wear the skin of a rhinoceros when Dad was in his severest mood. This, Myles understood. He had known him as honest, extremely outspoken but always just. Specially with respect to his art. In fact, between them the couple had helped him discard the ignorance that shrouded his writing. Any abrasive language Dad used when discussing a story was better than dumping a manuscript in the trashbox. Myles felt blessed. He had them as his well-meaning tutors. As one writer aptly put it, You and the writers from Dumaguete are lucky. You have living legends as your teachers. True! They were there when Myles searched for the deeper meaning in his life. And of course Dad was always equipped with his counsels: No such thing as inspired writing. You have to work at it. Hone it to perfection! You have to drive yourself to write. Mom, on the other side, urged Myles to read critically: Know the faults so you won’t repeat them in your writing. Memorize by heart Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps at Mudtime” and know the major difference between the ordinary and extraordinary mortal. And so he started producing poems which now had structure. For as his Mom advised, Every work is a close awareness of rhyme, rhythm, and meter. Poems must use poetic diction. Each work demands a precise length as in paintings. See, watercolors are effective in small sizes but not those in acrylic. The canvas is larger. The vibrant colors and bold delineations sweep and overwhelm the eye. With respect to vers libre, unconditional, it is a lie. And, like all lies, it dies a natural death. Only when you write with total awareness of the inherent rules governing poetry, would the verses become a song. Under her tutelage, Myles matured as a poet. Now it was time to write fiction. His first attempt (which was actually a mutant of the genre), was mildly criticized by Dad as lazy writing. After the session, Dad told him, Myles, if you can write a poem, then you shouldn’t find it hard to write fiction. Give the writing of stories the same amount of drive, energy, and love as you do for your poems. If you can do that, show me your work. And while doing it, keep in mind the artisans at work. He who holds a blowtorch endures heat and glare while melding two edges of steel to form a design; and he who has conquered his fear of heights may measure space’s precise length and width from which his structure shall rise. His Dad was right. The work he submitted was haphazardly done. After supper, Myles, bearing seriously the words of his Dad, tackled the dizzying and crafty art of fiction. The revised work entitled “Anniversary,” although there was a minor obscurity that Dad wanted cleared (nothing Freudian about it), got Dad’s warmest smile and hug of congratulation.

Driving the car, Myles now craved for that reassuring hug. Dad’s embrace had magical powers. It drove Myles to write more, to believe in what he was capable of doing. But right now, Dad was seated on the far right. If he reached out to him, Mom would be surprised, might cause a little commotion and distract him from his driving. So his only consolation for the moment was the thought—if they safely reached the top, he’d ask from Dad one enormous relieving hug. Stop being a little boy, Myles, he chided himself. But with Mom and Dad, he found it easy and comfortable to be the child he once was. This was his well-guarded secret, the special claim of his sonship. He had a feeling his Mom understood this. For like Dad, she too hovered above his head every time he sat down to write. Like guardian angels! It was uncanny, for at that very instance, Mom lightly and reassuringly touched his leg, where the muscles were as taut as piano strings. His cramped lifted shoulders, she gave a gentle pat. We trust you, son, she said.

Myles puffed out one big breath as he saw another bend. He slowly swerved the car to the right, shifted from second to first gear, just to be sure the tires clutched tight the earth underneath. The crunchings were like complaints. Nothing was ever friendly about this road. As in his writing! Especially when it was a new poem or story, where he was unsure which direction to take. No maps, no charts or familiar territory to guide except that deep self-nagging, the path had to be explored and relentlessly pursued. It occurred to him, like a conclusive statement: this road is such a good reminder of everything I have done and am still doing.

Despite the coolness and the achingly sweet smell of grass, he sweated profusely as if he carried the sun on his back. You are a very good driver, son, was Dad’s crisp remark. He wanted to say he wasn’t, really, but only a dry Oh limped out of his throat. His head ached and buzzed. Bursts of impatience filled his lungs. How far or near they were to their destination, he didn’t know. Dare I scream the four-letter word to exorcise the tension wracking in my gut—but his Mom said, Son, we are almost there. Relief flooded him. One triumphant sigh escaped his throat, and he knew that at that moment he was in command.

If you put your heart and mind to it, Dad once said, nothing was impossible to write. He gazed at his Mom, at his Dad who made him to see that courage that existed and lived in him. All he needed was the right occasion to find out he could do it.

Oh, for a prayer of praise, thanks for his beloved writer-parents! Their trust kept him going when he himself was on the precarious verge of losing it. He wouldn’t give up the battle with the road, for as always, they were his constant reminder of his strength, his fountainhead of colors, of vision, of light. His Valencia! And what occurred today, his test by driving, including his glorious feeling of achievement, he deeply knew that he could, at any time, recall in gratitude and joy. He would evoke love’s sensation of being, the strength that nudged, pushed, and drove him to the joys and perils of writing, and the pursuit of what is good and memorable. And each time he sat down to write, Dad’s love would always remind him, Son, you are not alone.

Exultant, Myles finally saw the tops of the brown cottages, the pine needles dancing their delicate paean in the wind.

He must not forget to ask Dad for that hug.

Ernesto Superal Yee was born in Tanjay, Negros Oriental in 1953. He finished his BBA degree, major in management, and later on his LLB at Silliman University. He passed the Bar in 1983. He was Clerk of Court V at the Regional Trial Court Branch 32 in Dumaguete City, and was also a part-time instructor at the College of Law in Silliman. He was a fellow at the 1977 Silliman University National Writers Workshop, and his poems and fiction have been published by the Philippines Free Press, Philippines Graphic, Chimera, Manila Review, Mr. and Ms., Caracoa, Ani, Panorama, Focus Magazine, and Sands & Coral, and anthologised in A Habit of Shores: Filipino Poetry and Verse from English, 1960s to the 1990’s. His books include About My Garden [1991], Ember Days and Other Tales & Stories [1999], Covenants & Other Poems [1999], and the novel Out of Doors [2005]. He died in 2009.

The Fruit of the Vine


“Look to him, and be radiant
O taste and see…”
~ From Psalm 34

Blue pools of shadow on the road were quivering in the noon light as Aquiles swung the wheel of the pick-up angrily, raising dust clouds under the old tires. All the way down the noonday emptiness of Medina’s main street he drove without lifting his boot from the accelerator, through the avenue of old agujo trees that leaned like soldiers stunned by the heat, whipping past the high ivied walls of the Spanish enclave, where the houses of the planters sprawled under their red tile roofs. He turned the corner near the coconut mill with a squeal of misaligned tires, but this was one time when the shrill pained sound did not make him wince.

Nearing the edge of town a small boy darted out of the skinny shadows in the bamboo groves and sped bare-bottomed and feckless across the road.

The man’s hands, wet on the wheel, slipped, and the truck swerved just as the child’s dusty heels cleared the white highway line. Aquiles caught a glimpse of the look the boy flung over his shoulder at him, large eyes blank with a panic that did not have time enough to shape itself on his features.

The formless heat that had been swarming around his collar and forehead seemed to gather inside his eyes. Brother, thought Aquiles, Brother, if that were only you….

The shadows on the road blurred again, and he pulled off to a stop on the dusty shoulder of the highway. His hand shook as he lifted it to his face.

His eyes were stinging. It’s only sweat, he told himself. He sat looking at the drop of wetness that had fallen on his forearm. A sharp ray of sun picked out the drop, it seemed to him, because it shone so, with a hard blistering brightness that hurt the eye. Another drop joined the one on his arm and Aquiles shook his head back impatiently.

After a while the tightness in his throat eased, and his eyesight cleared enough for him to look back up at the road again. He blew his nose before letting in the clutch, casting a quick glance around the verges of the highway, where the bamboos pricked their anemic shade listlessly onto the road.

The pick-up started at first try, and Aquiles gave a tight grim smile as he wondered what he would have done if it had stalled in front of his brother’s office.

It would have ruined my exit, he thought, I would have had to ask Leo to come out and give me a push…. That seems to be all I’m good at, exits. Funny thing is, I never get anywhere. Just exits, pick up and run….

But the heaviness in his chest lightened as the crotchety old gears engaged and the truck pulled away. “Now,” he muttered, “now maybe my luck will change.”

A strange thing, luck, and how the little rhythms that ran that small flash of prescience—or what one liked to think of as one’s well-being could come to be so pitifully dependent upon prescience when one worked alone in the fields. It was what the tenants called signals, and he had laughed at first: the flickering midnight-black flash of a butterfly wing, caught from the corner of one’s eye—and how one searched for some tiny spot of brightness or lucky brown on that remembered wing, just to save one from disaster!—Or the gecko’s hoary burble in the night, or a green snake slipping past your foot into the canefields….

There had been a snake, a little green stem of one, that squirmed across his path the day his father brought him to Nasig-id. There was a brown moth that night, too, that landed on his jacket as he sat in the light of the kerosene lamp at the farmhouse, but it was the snake he remembered.

They had stood together, he and his father, among the dusty canes that leaned, ready to be harvested, high in the foothills. The one o’clock air was thick with the hot rasp of cicadas.

Migrant workers sat in the shade of the last two trucks, the ones the bank hadn’t yet caught up with; from where Aquiles and his father stood, the sakadas and the trucks were a shapeless huddle that had faded to the color of dirt.

His father’s finger pointed here and there, across one segment of field and then another, swatches cut out of the hills; in some places the lines of cane clung precariously along the steep sides. That afternoon the cane spread out in blinding green, tucked against mountains that seemed only a fingertip away in the flattening heat of noon, but made remote by their cool blueness.

Aquiles had stopped listening to his father. His eyelids felt heavy with squinting in the heat. They had left Medina early in the morning, before daybreak. As they skirted the coast and turned off toward Pamplona the sun slipped out of the sea, a deep copper coin pushed up through a slit in the water—”Like a piggybank in reverse,” Ambrosio Vergantinos had chuckled, and Aquiles had stolen a look at his father, still surprised whenever the old man produced a whimsical thought. It also amused Aquiles that his father had chosen the mercenary metaphor, it was true to type.

That morning as the Land Rover rounded the bend into Nasig-id and he saw the fields against the far blue of sea and mountain, he felt the hair on his arms and nape rising in the chill air, as it always did at that sight. But the elation did not last: the sagging floor of the farmhouse and the tractors squatting disemboweled in the shed took care of that.

Now, in the noon sun, he became vaguely aware that the metallic ring of his father’s voice had been replaced by something else, an uncomfortable hesitating tone Aquiles rarely heard. It was his father’s “bank voice,” the color his normally brisk speech took on, a tone he had heard only a few times: it alternated between a carefully schooled reasonableness and strident anger, as Aquiles and his father sat side by side in front of impassive loans officers at the National Bank.

“You know, son,” Ambrosio Vergantinos was saying, “I would have wanted to hand this farm over to you boys as, you know, a finished thing, like I gave the house to your mother, before you boys were born. You know she never even saw it until it was finished. This isn’t even a big farm, what I’m leaving you. Now the sugar boom’s over and I’m just a small farmer, and we’re the ones hardest hit, you know….”

His father kept saying You know, turning the old Titus watch around on his wrist, and looking out over the fields. Aquiles did know, and he wished his father would stop talking: no one in Medina could talk of anything else these days, how the sugar market had taken a nosedive, hit rock bottom, and wiped out so many people that now nobody was even saying any more that there was nowhere to go but up.

So Aquiles stood patiently in the sun, saying nothing while his father’s roundabout explanation droned gently along with the cicadas. There had been no urgency in that little discourse, only a terrible tiredness that had made the son think in amazement, Why, my father’s old!

What it had amounted to hadn’t seemed extravagant at the time: the old man had only asked him for six months, to put off leaving town for his job with the advertising agency, just until the price of sugar had stabilized and the last of the amortization liquidated.

“What about Leo?” he asked when his father was through. “He’s going to be the accountant, not me.”

“I’d like him to get through the accountancy licensing exams next year without anything extra on his mind.” His father gave him a small apologetic smile, and a drop of sweat splashed down onto his cheek from under the battered old Stetson of Aquiles’ grandfather.

Ambrosio Vergantinos added quickly, “I know it’s not suited to your disposition, Aquiles, you were trained…not to be a farmer—”

The slightly awkward phrasing held no bitterness or blame, only the faintest of traces from a fond, lingering regret, and Aquiles thought, It was I whom you wanted to be the accountant, Papa. And I studied for something so useless instead.

He put out his hand to his father, and just then the little green snake slid past their feet and disappeared into the canebrakes with a tiny, oily whisper.

His father looked down, startled, and gave a sharp exclamation as the snake scuttled off. He caught Aquiles’ eye and then he laughed, loud and delighted.

It was his father’s laugh that rang through the field— like a boy’s, almost, in the ringing glare of noon.

But the six months had attenuated themselves into something closer to six years. In the beginning there had still been enough money left and enough optimism with it, for him to be able to scavenge out a few large-scale schemes: the new tractor for the south field, a whole new irrigation plan.

It had felt good, sitting with his father under the guttering flame of the kerosene lamp, their fingers damp with sweat, tracing together the pipelines on the blueprint—those arteries of water that led up from the river valley far below. They had both felt light-headed at the thought of so much money being spent for so little water, but it was recklessness shared.

None of it worked. Aquiles remembered the day he drove the seventy kilometers from Nasig-id to Medina and then back, to bring his father to the farm.

There had been a one-hundred-twenty-day drought and the earth cracked like blistering skin under their feet. There were dirty rings under his eyes and his hands shook with fatigue and sleeplessness as Aquiles bent to start the diesel engine that powered the irrigation pumps.

The pipes shook as the engine rumbled to life. Aquiles could not bring himself to look at his father.

After a long, long pause, the four rotating sprinklers started scattering their fine parasols of spray across the drooping cane in a hundred-fifty-thousand-borrowed-pesos worth of droplets.

Barely a minute later they heard the rumble across the hills. He looked in alarm at the engine but it was chugging along—breathlessly, it seemed to him. He was wondering cynically just how long the motors would hold out when he felt the first heavy pelts of rain.

The first rainfall in four months swept down from the metal-shiny sky with remorseless thoroughness. Aquiles and his father stood beside their rotating sprinklers, drenched in the downpour.

And Aquiles laughed, he roared as the water poured down his cheeks.

It would have been better if he had left then, Aquiles thought as the pick-up jounced onto the feeder road that led down to the river. The best time, he said to himself, would have been even before that, when they were all riding high on sugar. But then his Papa used all the profits to buy the trucks, and the last of the coconut land went to the payloader.

The pick-up rattled past the primary schoolhouse, where children were sweeping the bare packed dirt of the schoolyard. He saw the gay, cheap improvised streamers of crepe paper hung across the makeshift stage for the schoolyear’s closing exercises.

A small girl called out to him from along the roadside. “Aquiles,” she cried, her little eyes bright in the dust cloud he was raising. He waved back.

I should have left when I could, he thought with a sudden grinding of truck gears. I would have been out of here by now, this place where little kids know me by name. Maybe even out of the country.

Then the thing he had been pushing away, the recent memory about his brother shoved deep into his stomach, now gave a small bump when his mind returned to what his brother had told him barely a half-hour before.

Earlier in the morning he had gone to see Leo at his office. The brothers hardly saw each other since Aquiles had moved out to take temporary lodgings near the river.

His brother’s eight-month-old, two-door bantam was parked in front of the accountancy house offices, its red paint glinting smugly in the ten o’clock sun when Aquiles pulled in beside it. He was always a little surprised at the color: he wouldn’t have suspected that Leo was capable of choosing so wicked a shade.

He parked the old Ford quite close to it, with a wry malice that was more than half intended. He walked into Leo’s office carrying the paper sack with the present inside which he was bringing to Leo.

Leo was closeted with one of the senior partners down from the central office, and Aquiles, knowing his brother, expected that that would be one interview Leo would be in no hurry to terminate. So he sat in the tiny anteroom beside a gaudy jarful of balsam flowers and dried weeds painted an unlikely ochre to match the leatherette upholstery.

He leafed through a three-month-old copy of Fortune, which had been left with a painfully disguised carelessness on the wide table among the newspapers.

He ran his eyes over the stock-market quotations, making believe he had shares in Bethlehem Steel, saving the glossy advertisements for last. The ads were beautifully composed, it seemed to him, the colors glowing rich and somber: Cointreau, Audemars Piguet, Chemical Bank, How would you like to own a piece of island in the Bahamas, Pan American. All the low-voiced persuasion of money that was old but did not smell fishy from handling, bills that were sprung out by fingers that did not fumble—a world away and none of it vulgar; for all that it was a finely modulated hymn to ready cash.

He looked wistfully at the sleek, supple interplay of color and text, running his fingertip down one last shiny page, and then he gently closed the magazine and put it away.

There was a spiritless semi-representational rendition of a fishing scene on the wall opposite him, but it hurt his eyes. Its stylizations seemed to him to be more the result of haste than of any creative energy; even with his amateur eye he could dismiss it as a glib Mabini Street ready-made. Hanging at an exact right angle to this painting and on the adjacent wall was another landscape, some innocuous Robert Hall reproduction of trees in autumn foliage. It also matched the furniture.

Leo certainly has terrible taste, he thought with a twinge of savage satisfaction.

Then he remembered the charcoal greys and rosy leathers of the ads in the magazine, beside him here, in Leo’s over-decorated little anteroom, and the cool hard voice of reason added, But give Leo a little time; one day you’ll walk in here and find the walls austere and the brand-new leather looking respectably shabby, like a scaled-down copy of the study of some Oxford don.

Aquiles was reflecting upon this imminent possibility when Leo himself stood at the door holding it open for him.

There was something ageless about Leo, neither young nor old, or perhaps a bit of both, rather like an aggrieved sprite. The clothes he wore did not help much to dissipate the impression he gave of bony agility: everything was just a little too sharp or pointed: the twin arrows of his pants’ creases, the cardboard collars, his chin that poked like a third collar above his discreetly striped necktie.

Even the denims Leo wore on Saturdays were always a shade too clean.

His younger brother always made Aquiles feel unkempt and rowdy. Every time he saw Leo these days it made him feel like one of nature’s inexplicable reverses.

The brothers sat looking at each other across the deskpen set with the chrome pen that was not meant for writing.

“What do you want, Les?” Leo asked him. Just like that, Aquiles thought without resentment. The question was not rude, merely neat and economical.

Aquiles caught in his breath and then he said, quite mildly, “Aren’t you going to ask how I am? Or how the farm’s doing?”

Leo’s eyes flickered away from him, the direction of the framed certificate of merit he had gotten from the Asian Institute of Management. “I was there last Sunday. You weren’t around. Nothing’s happening there.”

It was remarkable, Aquiles reflected, how his brother could manage to turn a careless comment into an accusation. “That’s just the point,” he told Leo.

The wide-set, thick-lashed eyes of his brother turned back to him. They were his one beauty, and now they were regarding Aquiles with dispassionate tranquillity. “You know how I feel about it.”

“I still won’t agree to selling it,” Aquiles said flatly.

Leo sighed and settled his fingertips together, a mannerism he had recently acquired, and Aquiles had the urge to reach over and reip that neat, spatulate steeple apart.

 “Why not, Aquiles? You’ve done your bit toward saving it.”

 Aquiles carefully ignored the tiny damning note of faint praise, and said instead: “You wouldn’t want to sell, either, if you’d been through what I have with the farm.” He added after the slightest pause, “What Papa and I have been through.”

 Leo did not react as he had hoped. He laughed instead, shaking his head. “What do you want, Les?” he said again. “What am I supposed to do about that? Why are you here?” Aquiles did not reply. He sat squinting out the one glassed-in window, his heavy shoulders hunched and his fine jaw clenched.

 After a few moments Leo said in the same elaborately friendly tone, “How’s your road-building coming along? I was talking to Joe Killip at Rotary the other day and he tells me National Irrigation’s giving you another contract as soon as you finish this one up.”

 Aquiles eyed his brother. He managed a tight smile. “If I finish this one up,” he said.

 There was another long pause, and then Leo said curiously, “Why have you gone into that anyway, Les? I would have thought that wasn’t your thing. You used to talk about leaving town, going abroad, making ads, or something….”

Aquiles shrugged. “One way of making a living’s as good as another.”

 “I don’t believe you mean that. Not you.”

 “Having to make do for so long sort of knocks the fancy feathers off anyone. And since you don’t seem too inclined yourself toward getting your hands dirty….”

“I don’t feel like brawling over that again.” Leo spoke sharply, and a frown marred his handsome brows. “You can’t make me feel guilty about that any more. Nothing you say can make me feel guilty.”

“I admire your honesty,” said his bother, now becoming quite angry. “Some people aren’t so lucky. They aren’t able to sit back and say, 1 can’t feel guilty.”’ He waved away Leo’s protesting hand, and it occurred to him that they looked as though they were swatting away flies. “You’re right, Leo, road building isn’t ‘my thing.’ Neither was farming, come to think of it. In the beginning I chose to stay. I got in sufficiently deep to want to at least get it going and come away feeling decent. I’m building roads to raise what money I can for the farm. It’s not just sugar now, you saw it. We’ve planted other things while waiting out the slump. And those other crops take time to grow.”

“Yes, I saw them when I was there,” Leo said, the high, boy’s voice now pitched low and eager to placate. “Root crops, weren’t they, mongos and peanuts, and there was something else, on the far end adjacent to the Lazaros, but the overseer headed me off—”

“Yes, yes, I’ll tell you about it in a bit.” Aquiles interrupted him, and Leo flashed him a gnomish, suspicious look. “You haven’t been there in a while,” Aquiles said hastily.

Leo could not resist preening. “The central office keeps me busy out of town.” He added kindly, “You’re supplying the government with—raw material, is it? That was a good idea, getting them to make use of our payloader now that it’s off-season for sugar.”

Aquiles ignored the “our,” and said, “That’s what I’ve come to see you about. The compression rings on the loader finally gave, and I need a new set. I’m on manual loading now, and it’s eaten into my budget.” He was speaking rapidly, and took a small, quick breath. “I need a loan, Leo.” There was again the agile disappearing act of his brother’s hand, flicking the air. “No, no, not from you. I’m making a loan downtown and I need you to guarantee it for me. The bank manager, Gonzalvez, he’s your friend. Then it’ll be a sure thing.” He added awkwardly, “I didn’t want to have to come to you.”

 There was a long silence and a ray of light from the window stirred a bit, glancing off the trophy on the bookcase behind Leo. It was one which Leo had won in some tennis tournament for professional men, and as the silence drew out, Aquiles found himself remembering how his father had once told them, “Why do you waste your time playing basketball? Tennis. Now, that’s the gentleman’s game.”

Aquiles stirred impatiently. “The money’s not for me.”

His brother’s eyes did not waver. “I know. That’s the whole point, isn’t it, it’s for the farm.”

“What I meant was, there’ll be a lot of men going home hungry tonight.” He held out the old argument feeling as he did so that it was some soiled rag.

Leo fetched up a heavy sigh. “I feel you’ve already incurred too many debts between you, you and Papa, over a lost venture. How many of the loans were paid on time, Les? How many? I can’t risk it.”

“You’re not the one paying,” snapped Aquiles. “Besides, the check from National Irrigation will be in within a week. This is just to tide the men over.”

“You said that the last time, with the truck rentals. Did Mendiola ever pay you? That was two years ago. And guess who coughed up.”

The hands of Aquiles were spread out on his knees and he had been staring down at them. He stood up abruptly, saying, “In that case, I’ll be going.”

Leo stood up too and put out a detaining hand. “No, sit down, Les. I would have loaned you the money myself, but I can’t. I’m saving it for something else. I might as well tell you now.”

Leo waited until his older brother sat heavily down again.

Aquiles looked at him, at the head that had once seemed so touchingly large for its dun neck. He saw the wide brow carefully camouflaged behind the thick tufts of hair now disciplined to neatness, and the pointed chin, and he remembered how when they were children he had sometimes thought that Leo looked like a strawberry. Now he looked at his brother’s head jutting forward on the long neck, he looked at the clever, diamond-shaped head, poised as if to strike, and it reminded him of something else, deadlier than a strawberry could ever be.

“What is it?” he said ungraciously, embarrassed. “I have men waiting.”

The upward glance his brother gave him was watchful. “I didn’t want to tell you this yet. I knew you’d feel bad. I’m going abroad, Les. Hijos de Luzurriaga is opening a branch in Singapore and they’re sending me out of the country for training.”


A sickening lurch jostled Aquiles’ stomach—out from somewhere it came, and it felt as though the blood were spreading in slow heavy beats outward, to his arms and neck and fingertips, a hot, alien pulse. The syllable was all he could manage.

“To Europe.” Even Leo’s voice could not quite fix itself around the casualness he was trying at. “They’re sending me on a tour of duty for six months, Zurich, Dusseldorf, Milan, Florence, where the banks are.”

Aquiles looked up numbly. It’s unfair, he thought. Florence. The old stones….

“Why you?” he said, his throat clenched around the words.

“I’ve worked hard enough,” said Leo, injured. “And my licensure boards were not bad. My record’s good; Valenzuela likes me.”

Leo had placed a respectable sixteenth nationwide in the accountancy exams. Their father in his time had been number one. “Not bad,” their father had said, the soft glow in his eyes, “but you still can’t beat your old man.” “Not bad at all,” echoed Leo, across the dinner-table. “Sixteenth out of two thousand eight hundred ninety three is pretty good, hub, Pop. More than you ever did.” The old man roared genially, cuffing Leo on the side of the head. They both laughed, and Aquiles, watching them from the far end of the table, where he was working on the irrigation blueprints, looked from one face to another, and they suddenly felt very far away.

“That’s not what I meant,” Aquiles muttered.

Leo darted him a puzzled glance.

Aquiles cleared his throat. “Well, I suppose you’ll be seeing Mama and Papa on your way…wherever. Coming or going.”

“I’m stopping by Vancouver on my way to Geneva. I suppose Hector has room in his apartment for one more.”

Hector was their oldest brother, a dermatologist practicing in British Columbia.

“Is there anything you want to send them?” Leo asked, “I’m leaving in about a month. They’re still working on my papers.”

Aquiles hoped he did not look as pale as he felt. He tried a joke. “What name will you carry?” He could just see it scribbled across Leo’s passport picture, the despised name. Meneleo Vergantifios. It had a certain trochaic ring. He couldn’t see why Leo found it sissy.

Leo smiled. He was in a good mood. “Maybe some day I’ll find that funny. I’m thinking of dropping the first half of the name altogether. Have it legalized.”

“Oh. You mean lionized,” said Aquiles.

It took a few seconds for his brother to get the joke, “That, too,” he grinned, when it dawned on him. “That, too.”

Aquiles’ arm felt heavy as he reached across to pat his younger brother on the shoulder. “Well. Good for you. Now I have to go….”

Leo had risen too. “Les, I meant it, what I asked you a while ago. Why are you in all of this at all? You haven’t got the training for it. And besides, I would have thought that a history major would have taken, well, the long view—”

“Let’s forget it, okay?” said Aquiles brusquely.

They were now both standing at the door. “What do you really want?” Leo persisted. “Mama will want to know what your plans are.”

“I haven’t got the money to join them,” Aquiles said, hoping he did not sound bitter.

Leo looked him in the eye. He had to tip back his head to do that. The words came out carefully tins time. “You know, I always wondered why you never asked me for help managing the farm, when I was through with school. You always knew you could have come to me.”He sounded hopelessly sincere, and the despairing anger rose in Aquiles again.

“Maybe I just didn’t want to share the heroics,” he said.

As he turned away, his brother called after him. “Wait. You forgot your paper bag.”

Leo held out the little sack that Aquiles had brought in with him. “It’s heavy,” said Leo.

Aquiles looked down at the bag, and at his brother, and then after a few measuring moments he took it back.

“It is heavy,” he said, and he walked out into the sunlight.

All along the riverbank the low growl of machinery rose with the tooth-grating sound of rocks scraping and rattling against metal. Aquiles left the pick-up in the scraggly shade of a stand of tired coconuts and strode toward the workmen.

There were about eighteen to twenty men and boys along the banks of the river, which was now summer-shallow and glittering hard in the early afternoon. The pebbles lay smooth in the water, scattered wilfully by the currents that washed them down from high in the hills.

A few of the men stopped and waved. Aquiles waved back, hoping that from a distance at least he managed to convey the appearance of well-financed jauntiness.

One of the newer workers, a boy of about nineteen, straightened up over the kerosene can of gravel which he had heaved from the stockpile. He beamed at Aquiles, his moon face split across the middle like dough that was just starting to bake, and Aquiles pretended not to see the young eyes which followed him, bright and intent with an admiration that hadn’t gone through enough, long enough for it to wear away.

It was just his luck, thought Aquiles gloomily, to gather around himself men with the same suicidal zeal as he had: he couldn’t understand why, but after a time most of these men ended up willing to labor into the night without overtime pay, as long as he was there working beside them. In the end Aquiles hated it, Ilis fatal gift of attracting loyalty—it was worse than blackmail, because it was as though he were piling up debts he could never pay off.

Like this boy, Rudy. He just showed up with one of the trucks and asked to work for him. A good boy, resourceful, could be sent on errands. Called him “sir.” A good boy.

The rock crusher he was renting at thirty bucks an hour sat on a log platform, high on an embankment. From below the platform a line of dump trucks idled in turn, loading the broken stones that spouted down from above. From there, each truck drove off to the irrigation site about two kilometers down-river. Aquiles was particularly proud of the whole contraption; it was improvised but it looked solid.

 He realized now that there was a sound missing below the chomping clatter of the rock crusher, and he saw two mechanics clambering over the disabled TD-15. The payloader sat with its jaws gaping open and a tiny trickle of oil ran down its side, as though it were sweating black blood under its hot little tent of torn tarpaulin.

 The thing looked idiotic, he thought angrily.

 He lifted his arm, calling one of the mechanics toward him. “Julian! How many trips did the trucks of Chua Tee make this morning?”

 The mechanic loped toward him, the whites of his eyes showing startlingly clean against the oil-grimed face. “Only three, boss.” The man grinned apologetically, and his nicotinestained teeth came on full show.

 “Milk of the devil. How about the truck of Mrs. Delfino?” Mrs. Delfino was an old lady, a widow, who was renting out her one truck; she had been caught in the sugar-cane crash herself.

 “Crankshaft broke.” Aquiles and the mechanic looked at each other with weary surmise, and then they both chortled mirthlessly.

 “And the rear tires of the pick-up are misaligned again. Fix them for me, will you, Lian. I have to go some way upriver this afternoon.” He patted the man on the shoulder, where the torn sleeve hung open. That shirt of his had still been fairly new when he gave it to Julian.

He stood watching the workers. For all of its massive physical motion, the process looked very orderly, it even had a certain ungainly solemnity. A dozen or so men hauled the smaller rocks from the river, heaving kerosene containers filled with stones onto shoulders that were always wet and looked almost well-oiled.

 Then two by two, the men filed up the ladder to the platform, where the monster drone of the crusher issued its precise mechanical command, a working rhythm as measured as a galley-master’s drums.

It seemed to Aquiles, watching them, that the unbroken stream of men were bearing and leaving their rocks as at some arcane, insatiable altar, and he turned away, suddenly repelled.

What have I done to them? he thought, groping his way in the blinding heat toward the shelter of a camachile tree. What have I done to myself?

A young boy, Julian’s oldest son, limped past him carrying a medium-sized can of stones. His hair, cropped short, bristled upward in wet spikes, giving him the look of a startled porcupine. Through his sudden weariness Aquiles watched him; the boy’s features were already marked, its mass and crudely-hewn planes reminding him of an early Picasso, the pre-Cubist protrait of Gertrude Stein.

 He settled his back against the trunk of the tree. The water chuckled past his feet, like a mindless, happy spirit, but it gave him no joy. What do you want, said Leo.

 Ginevra had asked him that too. The water spread beyond him, golden arms opening in the afternoon. Somewhere a thrush was singing. Ginevra.

He was lying face up in the short grass, and the heavy blue of the April sky pressed down on his eyelids. Inside his closed eyes her afterimage, sharp against the sky, slowly changed color, blue against yellow, deep purple, and just at that moment the Siberian thrush nesting in the orange grove began releasing those winged liquid notes from its throat. He heard her hold her breath where she lay beside him.

 Aquiles pursed his lips and whistled, note for note, wild and sharp and sweet, and then the cello and the french horns and the woodwinds hidden in the birdsong clamored to be sung, and so, eyes shut against the sky, his whistle rang, bar after improvised bar, across the grove of oranges ripening in the summer.

She had asked it then, breaking into the growing storm of imaginary symphonic sounds: What do you really want to be?

He opened one eye and looked at her. She wasn’t smiling. He drew in his breath to whistle again and she said, Aquiles, answer me.

A musician! he shouted, still exuberant. But I can’t read a note.

I can see that. Her voice had a permanent smile. Be serious, she said. I am.

He rolled over on one arm and looked at her. He grinned crookedly. Ginevra’s short black curls caught fire, they turned reddish-gold against the light. You really want to know? he asked.

Tell it to me again, she suggested. He frowned a little. It’s so stupid, he said.

 No, it isn’t. The smile in her voice deepened. I want to see what it is this time.

 That made him laugh.

 I know, he said. Always changing my mind.

 He sat up. Someday, he told her, someday I’ll do it. All I want is to get to Europe. Stand in Chartres cathedral, and ogle at that blue light-of-paradise from the stained glass, breathe the air of Balzac along the Montpamasse, or even Mussolini in Italy. And all those galleries. That’s what I want. He rolled over on his stomach and looked into her face.

She said nothing, and he added, Don’t worry, even art historians manage to make do; I’ll come back here and teach at the university, or I’ll learn to be an art restorer, and stay over there. The two of us.

The amusement in her eyes had not yet darkened to disbelief, but he turned away. Think of it, Ginny. Just being there will be enough.

 But what will you do.

I told you. Look, sometimes, when I see all those glossy pictures in National Geographic or in those art books of Dr. Altman’s that he lends me, my fingers go into a cold sweat. I’d like to learn how to take pictures, Ginny, I’d photograph artwork for galleries or magazines, and then we’d travel….

But it never sounded real when he said it. He closed his eyes again. The light hurt. Think of it, Ginny, he said, more to himself than to her. To stand in the streets of Florence, among the old stones.

He felt her fingers close around his hand.

He turned to her, grateful for the touch. She looked away from him, and he said, Ginevra.

I told you not to call me that, she said, her mouth curving upward in spite of herself. It makes me sound like a drunkard. My father was the drinker, not me….

So he hadn’t been too surprised at her for not waiting. No one else knew what he had told her that day, but then the hours had a way of slipping by so fast, the day never long enough for all that had to be done for Nasig-id. Even now, it hardly seemed a year since he took her down to see the feeder road for which he had supplied the materials.

The road was far off the highway, hidden among the ricefields where the stalks bent golden green, overwhelmed with their own ripe color.

 He borrowed a motorcycle for the afternoon, and as he took her down the road he built, she nodded and smiled and made the appropriate sounds of admiration.

He showed her the portion of the river where his gravel concession was.

This is it, he said proudly.

 She was quiet as she watched the river, its pebbles showing a clear mottled brown in the late afternoon, like sweat flowing down the back of some hoary old god.

 He started up the motorbike again and they rode through the shallows, slicing a clean line through the water. An arc of spray suddenly sluiced up under the wheels.

 He ducked, but it splashed Ginevra in the face and eyes. She looked startled, and she shook her head back, scattering little gems in the umber fading light. Suddenly she laughed, that loud round sound of Ginevra finding something funny.

 He stopped the bike and pointed down the river, where the late sun was painting deceptive depths.

 He turned to her, surprising the expression in the cool, curious eyes, and he saw a flash of something, not even pity, as she watched him, a look bright and sad, and a little amused.

And then she said it, her eyes looking straight at him, without wavering. I am going away, she said.

One sticky finger touched Aquiles tentatively on the arm.

 “Boss,” said Julian’s voice, sounding sticky too with cigarette smoke. “The pick-up’s okay now.”

 “I doubt it,” Aquiles said without opening his eyes. “But I’ll take your word for it.”

 The mechanic sniggered good-naturedly. “Where were you thinking of taking it?”

 Aquiles sat up, rubbing his eyes. “There’s a new concession site, up near the source of the river. I’d like to take a look at it.” He kept his tone casual. It was as good a reason as any to keep away from the men, now that he couldn’t pay them.

 “That’s a hard road. Ever been there?”

 Aquiles shook his head. “I hear that farther into the interior there’s a lake, a deep one.”

 “People say it’s never been plumbed,” remarked Julian. “I haven’t been there myself. You want me to come along?” “No, I’ll be all right.”

 “It’s not you I’m worried about, it’s the pick-up.” Julian’s somewhat cheeky reply came with the easiness of hard companionship, and Aquiles punched the mechanic lightly on the arm.

 “No,” he said again. “I’ll go alone this time.”

 They were now standing beside the truck and from where they slouched in its meager shade they heard a woman’s voice raised in momentary though tired anger. It came out the peeling window of a house that humped tall above the waterline. The house was about a hundred meters from the shack Aquiles was renting.

“If you don’t come with me you’ll be all alone in here,” the woman’s voice was saying, now pitched taut with laborious patience.

“I don’t care.” Even from where the men stood the child’s voice emerged muffled in stubbornness.

“But why don’t you want to come?”

“Because.” The voice of the little girl broke on the unassailable solitude of her reason, and she began crying. “Because. Because. Because.”

Aquiles had heard crying from this house before, one or the other of the four children in there was always whining, and their caterwauling was usually good enough to last the whole afternoon without running down. He sometimes wished it could power his machines.

He had never heard this child cry before, though, and there was something in the weeping, a kind of high, inconsolable grief, that made the two men slide a look at each other.

The mechanic shook his head. “They’re at it again. It must be hell for her.”

“For the kid, or for Sabel?”

“Both,” said Julian.

The woman was saying, “Then I don’t know what to do with you,” and they heard the quick shuffle of feet over bamboo flooring.

She came down the stairs, hurrying in their direction but not toward them, a bony, tight-jointed woman with high, inexplicably heavy breasts.

On her way down the path through the coconuts she saw the two men, and she paused fractionally, slipping them a hesitant sidelong glance. She was all dressed up to go out; the polyester flower-print on her dress showed fiercely in the sun and it seemed as if the inky whiff of Japanese musk oil trumpeted from the flowers and not from her.

“Everything all right, Sabel?” Aquiles called.

“Can you do me a favor?” The tight worried lines sprang early from the corners of her nostrils. “Can you keep an eye on Kiya for me? She’s having a tantrum and I’m late.”

He grinned lazily down at her. There was a shine of moisture starting on her too-clean face, free of make-up until night, little beads lined up above the upper lip and under shallow almond eyes. “Sure,” he said. “Where are you off to?”

 The woman Isabel sighed, and a wry smirk, half-sly and half-pleased, softened her features into prettiness. “It’s closing day at school,” she said with a heave of those improbable breasts. “My fourth-grader’s finishing primary. He got third honors, and I’m going to pin on the ribbon.”

“Congratulations,” he said dryly, and she pulled nervously at the strap of her brassiere, turning to go.

“She’s not a bad sort,” said Julian, as the woman disappeared beyond the coconuts, the rather worn heels of her espadrilles slipping only once under their intent regard.

“No, she’s not. Not bad at all.” Aquiles meant it. He had been to bed with her himself a couple of times; the second time he hadn’t liked it much: he had been drunk and heavy and rather slow and she had pretended to enjoy it. When he tried to pay her a little extra that time she refused it.

Isabel had four children, and around the river she was quite matter-of-fact in admitting that they were sired by three different men. The one called Kiya was the oldest child.

On a sudden impulse Aquiles stood under the window and called out to her. There was an obstinate silence and he called again.

The child’s plain pale face appeared at the window. Aquiles figured that all twelve-year-olds were rather ugly, but this one was especially unattractive. The girl’s head was pointed in his direction. It was just as well she couldn’t see herself just then, he thought. Her nose was mottled red with crying.

The thin, dirty fingers crept over the windowsill. “Kiya,” he said, “come down. I have a treat for you.”

Julian turned to him. “Don’t bother with her, boss. You go on to Kidisin.”

“It’s okay, Lian. Go back to the loader. I’ll take care of her.” Aquiles hesitated, then he added quietly, “I think I’d really like to take her with me.”

Julian gave him a brief, uncertain glance and then he shuffled off to the payloader. “Be careful. I hear she bites,” he called over his shoulder.

Thanks for warning me,” Aquiles muttered.

The child stood at the top of the stair. She moved down the bamboo steps slowly, the fingers still creeping ahead of her, like tentative, restless feet on the banisters.

She was blind. Although the sightless eyes were turned to him empty of expression, he felt the girl’s suspicion as clearly as if it were written on her face. The immobility of her features had always unsettled him, and now the habit of her distrust bristled between them like a silent growl.

“I’m going for a ride,” he told her, trying to sound careless about it. “I need company, it’s a long way. Will you come?”

She recognized his voice. “Who says I have to come?”

He shrugged, and then he realized that she couldn’t see him. “Your mother asked me to look after you for the rest of the afternoon.”

“Why should I go with you?”

He let loose a short uncomfortable sigh. “Because I have already done a number of unproductive things today, and that might as well be one of them.” Exasperation was getting the better of his tone and he added, “You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to. But it’s not much fun hanging around the river when you can go for a ride. I bet you’ve never seen Kidisin.”

The child was quick, and he soon saw his error. “You bet I’ve never seen it.” The inscrutable child’s face and the thin, spiteful bitterness in her voice made him recoil.

 He looked down at the closed, old, unlined face, and he said, “Neither have I. We’ll see it together.”

She was quiet at that, and he led her firmly by one skinny shoulder toward the open door of the Ford. “Up you go.” He hoisted her up the running board and got in.

For the first few kilometers the child remained silent, and the man did not try to push her into conversation. She sat stiff and resentful, the wide, empty eyes turned toward the window. After a while he saw the tight little claw, clenched on the sill, beginning to relax its hold.

“What’s your real name, anyway?” he asked her.

“Heraklia,” she said.

“I see.”

Sabel was given to saying that the girl’s father had been a Greek sailor. If it were at all true, maybe she had gotten the names wrong in a bewildered muddle and called the child after a place dimly-retrieved from some smoky recess of memory, a name left carelessly behind along with the unborn child.

“I know your real name, it’s Aquiles,” the child piped in her colorless little voice.

“How’d you know?”

“I hear things,” she said simply. After a while she asked, “Do I call you ‘Boss’ too?”

“Sure. You can call me anything. My mother had a weakness for heroic names.”

“I don’t remember my father,” she said, and there was a small expectant pause, as though she was waiting for him to make some comment.

Aquiles thought of Sabel, brushing back a strand of oily hair, a hoarse chuckle unwillingly released from her throat, saying, “Her father was a drunkard,” and someone, an old woman whose face was lost in the circle of firelighted figures beside the river, cackling, “That doesn’t narrow it down much!” and Sabel finding it all quite funny just then, extricating her hand with diffident proficiency from a greasy grasp, to rub away a spot of coconut wine flecked at the hem of her skirt.

Something about her words reminded him at the time, in an odd sort of way, of Ginevra. The only times he was ever to see her shy, Ginevra, offering her name with that slightly awkward, defiant sidelong look: My father was a drinker….

His throat tightened, the large hard stone of pain gathering there again. The long shadows of the afternoon streamed past them, blue and yellow, and the trees flowed down the cliffs alongside, their torn curtain of green withering in the slow summer heat.

Far ahead of them, beyond the brown patches where the canefields had been cut out of the foothills, purple shadows deepened into the mountainsides. On the other side of that range somewhere was Nasig-id nestling quietly in its empty little cup of hill and sea and sky.

 The last of the cane in Nasig-id was already all milled, and the root crops were also safe, life tucked away in the dark, secret folds of the earth. It was the vines he thought of now, which he had planted for his father, two and a half hectares concealed by the slope at the far end of the fields, beside the abandoned farm of the Lazaros.

He had examined the vines just the day before: some of them needed spraying, and a few of the leaves were starting to curl in papery brown at the tips: he held them up in his hands, those veined leaves smaller than the palm of a man’s hand, heart-shaped.

He turned to the child now, and with one hand on the steering wheel he pushed toward her the thing that was lying on the seat between them. It was the paper bag which he had brought that morning, intending it as a gift for his brother. “I told you I had a treat for you,” he said to her.

The pallid face tilted upward and the unseeing eyes caught a bit of the blue coming in through the windshield. Aegean blue, he thought.

“What is it?”

His fingers fumbled with the bag and he held it up to her face with his right hand. “Grapes,” he told her.

“Where did they come from?” asked the blind child.

“I planted them. On my farm. On my father’s farm. We used to plant sugar, but before my father left for America I decided to try and plant grapes.”


He sat quiet, watching the flickering green that sped by in the wind as they passed. There it was again, the unanswerable question, but he realized that it would probably be easier to answer this child than his brother. Papa, he thought, I did it for you.

Aquiles drove along in silence a little farther, until the road bent, and he turned onto a byway that was hardly more than a grass-grown track. The pick-up eased into the upward grade with a homely crash of gears.

“I’ll tell you a story,” he told the girl.

“When I was a very small boy, younger than you, my dad got into a deal with this business friend of his. The guy leased him sixty hectares of land—fishponds, but mostly cacao and fruit trees. Papa invited my godfather, who was a retired schoolteacher, to invest in the land too. So they went into it together. It was good. We had all the fish we wanted, and the cacao trees had to be propped up because the branches were so heavy with fruit.” Aquiles glanced down at the child, expecting that the unreadable little face would be more closed than ever, in boredom, but she sat still, listening.

“Well, anyway, one day he took me along with him. The dikes in the fishpond broke during a storm and the fingerlings were gone. It was the first time he took any of us there. I remember a wide stretch of beach, out beyond town, where no one ever went anymore. It seemed very far to me. There was a pile of rocks, and beyond the rocks, the white sand, and a family of very old coconuts. They were so old that they didn’t bear fruit any more, and all they lived for was the wind from the sea.

“Papa sent me off to play on the sand. He left me alone, and when I got tired I came back to him. He was very quiet as we walked back to the Jeep. And now I know that all the while he was answering my questions: in that gentle, almost absent-minded silence was the quietness of a man who knows he’s up against defeat. As we drove away, he pointed to an empty patch of land to our right, and he said: Aquiles, one day, I’ll plant grapes there. How would you like that, grapes.’ Of course he never did. We gave up the land.”

“Are the grapes good?” the child asked. He didn’t know at first which ones she meant.

“We’ll taste them when we get to where we’re going,” he promised.

“When did you plant them?”

“Nearly two years ago.”

“Did your father get to taste them?”

“No. But he was there when I planted them.” But his father hadn’t said much the day Aquiles showed him the portion of field where he was planning to put the vineyards. Ambrosio Vergantinos had stood some distance from him on the slope of the south field. The men were felling a lightly wooded section of pines to make way for the vineyard and some of them were digging small holes in the ground for the posts and pipes which were eventually going to support the climbing tendrils. Cans of seedlings lay in the empty tractor sheds, waiting to be transplanted. Some of the pipes for the trellis were the leftovers from the farm irrigation.

Aquiles looked over his shoulder at his father. The old man was standing in the sunlight beside the trunk of a fallen pine. There were chips of wood scattered around his feet, near the neat bloodless gash on the tree trunk. The air was heavy with the warm scent of resin.

Aquiles saw his father bend over to pick up one of the chips, and the old man held it up to his nose, breathing in its secret, ephemeral fragrance, already fading in his hand.

Deep into the afternoon he and the blind child rode, into the hidden heart of the hillside, looking for where the river began.

“We’re going up now,” he said; “can you feel it? It’s getting a bit cooler too.”

The light brown hair fanned around her cheeks. They passed a miniature waterfall, little more than a lacy trickle from the ridge above, and as they went by, some of the spume wafted across her cheek and she laughed out loud for the first time, in real delight. “What was that? It’s gone now.” “A baby waterfall. It falls over the cliff from high up.” “Are there trees there?”

“Lots of them. There’s a clump of bamboo up there, straight ahead, on the crown of that cliff, and it looks like the tuft on the head of an angry rooster. All the shapes of the hills are like in a Chinese painting, all those lines going up and up.”

He knew the child could not understand much of what he was saying, but she settled contentedly back on the battered seat of the pick-up.

After a while the cicadas came out, waves of high sad sound sweeping down from one grove of rainforest trees to another, thin green sounds, catching fire.

He imitated them for her, their wistful minor key, and he whistled “The High and The Mighty,” which he hadn’t thought of since college, and then a few bars of Borodin, but he forgot what came next, so he taught her “Old MacDonald,” and then he hummed some late songs of Paul McCartney, lonely exuberant nonsense in a voice that came perilously close to cracking. Becoming breathless, he drew upon the only snatch of Lorca he could call to mind, “Green, green…the ship upon the sea and the horse on the mountain.”

“Go on,” she said.

“That’s all I know,” he said. “But there’s another one about color. Color and sounds, by Rimbaud. Each vowel sounds a different color. My French teacher taught it to us, and when she came to the ‘U’ sound—’U, Vert,’ ew, vehrr—I loved her lips, and I fell in love with her for one whole week.” He broke off, laughing. “But I can’t remember that one, either. Only the sounds and her lips.”

“Like learning to talk,” the child said suddenly.

He looked at her in surprise. “That’s true.”

What is it like, he wanted to ask her, never to have seen before?

But then she began telling him about a sea trip her mother had taken her on when she was five, the strange smell of the salt and the warm wind. “She took me to see a doctor about my eyes,” Heraklia told him.

But Aquiles didn’t want to hear about that part of it. He was sure he knew how the sea trip ended. The large and heavy fluttering of wings that began in his stomach that morning, with Leo’s news, had moved up his chest and now he felt the wings beating tears at his throat and eyes. He didn’t want to look at her, and then he remembered she couldn’t see him.

“I think we’re almost there,” he said, clearing his throat.


“At the end of the road.” His words sounded a shade ominous even to himself, and he found his lips turning upward grimly.

The road ended in a grassy knoll completely backed by white cliffs. The hills here were clothed with short tough-looking trees and dusty tenacious creepers.

He took Heraklia’s hand and led her about a hundred fifty yards uphill. She held the bag of grapes. Through the trees he caught the blue flash of the lake below.

High overhead cirrus clouds brought the sky closer: they scudded toward sunset, salmon orange and shell-pink, the lovely blown colors of a Gentileschi.

“It will be dark when we get home,” he said.

She reached for his hand. “It doesn’t matter,” she said gently.

Of course it did not; it would always be night for her, he thought, and then he told himself, But how can she not feel bitter over what she has never seen?

“Would you like to go down to the lake?” he asked her.

“Would you?”

“Maybe another time,” he said, “I think I’ve gone far enough for one day.”

A narrow path led downward through the trees toward the water. There was a large rock in a little clearing not far below them. He steered her toward it, their feet crackling in the forest silence and when they got there, he picked her up and set her on the stone.

It was not a very large lake, only about seven hectares around, but from where they were sitting the waters looked dark.

It was the hour of day that seemed to lend all it touched an antique heraldic stature, as though the things that moved within the slow, formal light were about to stand poised for a portrait.

“Is it beautiful?” she asked him.

He didn’t say anything for a while. He was having trouble with his voice again.

“What color is the sky now?” she said. “Blue.”

The child smiled, an old, wise lifting of the comers of her lips, willingly revealing to him the helplessness larger than his own. When he saw it on her face he did not feel sorry for her any more.

“Delia Robbia blue,” he said. “That’s what Tennessee Williams calls it. I like to think of it as Andrea del Sarto blue, the blue of the madonna.”

In spite of the precarious exhilaration he was now feeling, the thrust of anger quickened through his belly as he thought, And when Leo stands inside the Uffizi, will he know that del Sarto wept because he knew he could never paint like Raphael, his master?

aAquiles bent over the girl. “I’ll tell you what this blue is like,” he said, opening the bag of grapes. “Delia Robbia blue, del Sarto blue, the blue of the Aegean of your father, the blue of Heraklia,” he said, pulling off one frosty, purple globe, and lifting it to her mouth. “Taste.”

The tentative fingers reached up and took it.

“The Concords ripened early,” he said.

He looked away as she put the fruit into her mouth. “Aren’t you going to have any?” she asked him.

“Later,” he said, watching over the tops of the trees as the sun began to go, “There’s a lot of time.”

The sun hung over the edge of the westernmost ridge, and then it slipped away, his father’s “piggybank in reverse”— God taking back the coin He gave the world each day to spend.

Aquiles stood very still as he waited to see how the wind came down through the trees, each leaf passing on its message of cool air, and it ruffled the waters of the lake below for the briefest moment. He looked down at the wide still soundless water, the chill wind sliding along his arms, and he thought, Ginevra. Where you are it’s springtime.

The memory came then, how she had stood with him that last day in the ricefields, looking at the road he had built where the stalks hung heavy with ripening grain that waited to be harvested. Ginevra said, Sometimes I think that this is the real reason that keeps you here. And that’s why you’ll never leave, Aquiles. It’s enough for you, just what you can see….

He heard Heraklia stir beside him.

Her face was puckered around the fruit, but she said nothing, and he knew she was trying to please him.

“It’s there,” he said, “you’ll taste it. Blue. Like wine. Somewhere under the skin. You have to wait for it, then it’s there.”

The girl reached out and felt for the grapes. She held one over to him and she put another into her mouth.

He looked into her clear and sightless eyes as once again she tried the fruit, and in the fading light it seemed to the man that they were all caught and held in there, the hills, the dark quiet lake and himself, reflected faintly as in wide water, soundless and still.

“I don’t know,” said the child. “I can’t tell.”

“It’s all right,” said Aquiles, the bright heavy tears rising high in his chest, to his eyes, sharp and mingled with the blue scent of the fruit from his vines, “it’s all right. I can.”

Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas was born in Dumaguete City in 1951, the daughter of writers Edilberto Tiempo and Edith Tiempo. She received a BA in 1971, and an MA 1978, both in creative writing, from Silliman University, and went on to earn her Ph.D. in English Literature, also from Silliman. She worked for the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa as associate program coordinator, and for the university's English department as adjunct faculty. member. She has won several Palanca Awards for her fiction and poetry, and was the recipient of the Distinguished Author Award from the Writers Union of the Philippines, as well as the National Book Award. Her books include Upon the Willows and Other Stories [1980], The World Comes to Iowa: Iowa International Anthology [1987, co-edited with Paul Engle and Hualing Nieh Engle], Mountain Sacraments [1991], Flying Over Kansas: Personal Views [1999], and The Sea Gypsies Stay [1999]. She was former director-in-residence of the Silliman University National Writer's Workshop.